Cleo McKinnon thinks no child should go hungry.
That was her takeaway, two years ago, from a Benson Baptist Church program, “Lunch on the Lawn,” that feeds kids once a week at a town park.
“No child should have to feel hungry,” McKinnon said, “not if we can do something about it.”
So McKinnon, 58, started her own program, “Community Court of Benson,” that feeds dozens of children every Tuesday and Thursday during summer vacation from school.
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McKinnon does much of the work herself, packing lunches of sandwiches, fruit, chips and the like and handing them out between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. at 323 W. Woodall St. She has a few volunteers, mostly moms of the children she feeds.
McKinnon calls them her kids – 30 or more children who show up once or twice a week with or without a parent. They play on the one swing set and with a few toys, including an old hobby horse that McKinnon thinks was hers when she was a youngster.
“The good Lord has allowed us to do this, and so we’re going to keep on doing it as long as we can,” she said.
How long depends on money, McKinnon said. “We’re running low on funds,” she said.
To feed the children who come calling, McKinnon accepts donations of food, but she prefers cash or gift cards so she can guarantee that kids get healthy food.
“We want them to have a healthy, nutritious meal,” she said. “I have to make sure it’s right.”
She also wants to make sure the children give thanks for what they receive. McKinnon or a volunteer offer thanks for the food before the children eat; after the meal, the kids release balloons to “to thank Jesus,” she said.
On a recent Tuesday, McKinnon and her diners welcomed Benson police officers, who told the young people that police were there for them if they needed help. The officers brought along a patrol car for the children to explore, and lunch that day was pizza.
“We want to show support for these officers and for what they do for us,” McKinnon said. “We want the kids to know that they’re on our side ... It’s a loving thing.”
McKinnon was thankful for the donation of pizza, but without much fanfare, she also handed out juice, fruit and water, not forgetting her mission to put nutrition first.
As the children ran around in the summer sunshine, playing and enjoying their pizza, McKinnon noticed that not all of the regulars had arrived.
“I worry when they don’t show up, because I don’t want them to be hungry, and I want to make sure they’re OK,” she said.
Eventually, all of the regulars wandered in and filled their plates, chatting with the police officers and hugging McKinnon.
“They call me ‘Big Momma,’ ” she said,
The Rev. Paul Burgess, pastor of Benson Baptist Church, was on hand that Tuesday to help feed the kids and to kick around a soccer ball with a few of them.
“What she does is incredible,” Burgess said. “We’re so blessed to have her here helping these kids.”
McKinnon returned the compliment. “He is amazing,” she said.
Benson Mayor William W. Massengill Jr. also was at Community Court to thank McKinnon.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he told her. “But thank you.”
Recently, McKinnon received the Town of Benson’s “Caught Ya Doing Good” award. Every month the town searches for great customer-service stories and people who are improving the community. McKinnon received a gift basket from Jenny’s Sweet Creations.
But for her, it’s not about the accolades. It’s about the children.
“I just want to make sure my kids are all right,” she said, watching them play. “I’d do anything for these kids. The least we can do is feed them.”
To contribute to McKinnon’s Community Court of Benson, send a check, cash or gift card to Cleo McKinnon, 317 W. Woodall St., Benson, N.C. 27504.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett