Volunteers preparing 500 Thanksgiving meals to hand out at Aaron McNeil and Salvation Army

Donna Williams, a minister who started a weekly dinner church last year, has an ambitious plan to feed nearly three times the number her group usually serves every Thursday at the Aaron McNeil House.

A year ago at Christmas, Donna Williams and a small group of volunteers with Hopkinsville’s new Dinner Church managed to feed 60 people for a holiday meal. They were overwhelmed by the task, but pleased with the effort.

Donna Williams and a group of helpers worked in the Saint John United Methodist Church kitchen the day before Thanksgiving to roast 20 turkeys and prepare side dishes for people who come to the weekly Dinner Church at Aaron McNeil House. (Photo provided)

As the months wore on and the coronavirus pandemic hit, the group’s weekly meal count grew to roughly 80 people. Recently, they’ve been feeding about 110 people who come to the Aaron McNeil House on East Second Street every Thursday evening

On Thanksgiving Day, they plan to muster their best effort so far with enough turkey, dressing, sides and desserts for 300 people who will receive their meals in to-go boxes. 

A half a mile away on East Seventh Street, another group of volunteers, who help at the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen, will load up carry-out meals for about 200 people, said Alisa Barton, social services director for the agency. 

Both of the Thanksgiving feeds will be served at lunchtime.

Barton said she’s seen how the pandemic is affecting people who live paycheck to paycheck. It’s been especially hard on single moms who can’t hold a job when school is out because they have no one to watch their children, she said. 

“They just can’t absorb it,” Barton said, describing the financial hit on young families. “It’s almost impossible to come back from that.” 

Many of those families still have a place to live because of the national eviction moratorium, but the order is set to expire on Dec. 31. “That is going to be huge,” Barton said. To qualify for protection under the moratorium, tenants must fill out this affidavit

In the year since Williams started the Dinner Church ministry, the Methodist minister has learned there are a number of different reasons that people come for a free meal. Many of them have a place to live and some have work off and on. But many do not have enough money for three meals a day.

People line up to get a carry-out lunch Tuesday from the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen in downtown Hopkinsville. (Photo by Jennifer P. Brown)

“They strive every day to survive,” she said. “Some of them are not able to work, some of them have addictions and alcoholism. … But they are not people I would ever want to throw away. They are people who deserve to be helped.”

Like the people she feeds, Williams has relied on help to pay for the food she and her helpers cook or buy every week. 

Most of the food for the Thanksgiving meal was donated by members of New Work Fellowship. Other churches and individuals, including one anonymous donor, have sent cash from time to time. The United Methodist District has helped as well. 

Williams and a group of helpers started the Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday in the Saint John United Methodist Church kitchen. They had 20 turkeys to roast and dressing to prepare, along with several pounds of sweet potatoes, green beans and mashed potatoes, plus rolls and desserts. 

Experts in food insecurity estimate that 50 million Americans can’t always count on three square meals a day. That’s roughly 13 million more than the number of people who were living with food insecurity two years ago, according to the charity Feeding America.

The organization estimates that more than 800,000 Kentuckians don’t have enough to eat on a consistent basis for an active, health lifestyle — and that the state has the 10th highest rate of food insecurity in the country. 

Along with the Dinner Church and Salvation Army, several other groups in Hopkinsville have been working to feed people during the pandemic. The Aaron McNeil House and the Salvation Army have ongoing food pantry programs. Some churches have organized drive-thru food distribution days. Recently, Hillcrest Baptist Church gave out 1,000 boxes filled with enough supplies to feed a family of five. 

And the need will continue after Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

“I never imagined we would be feeding this many people,” Williams said. 

Anyone interested in contributing to the Dinner Church should email Williams at dwilliams945@gmail.com.

Volunteers preparing 500 Thanksgiving meals to hand out at Aaron McNeil and Salvation Army

Jennifer P. Brown | Hoptown Chronicle

Jennifer P. Brown is co-founder, publisher and editor of Hoptown Chronicle. You can reach her at editor@hoptownchronicle.org. She spent 30 years as a reporter and editor at the Kentucky New Era. She is a co-chair of the national advisory board to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, governing board president for the Kentucky Historical Society, and co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.