Chattanooga native, Clara Shelley has spent her Thanksgiving Day volunteering at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen for two decades. "My oldest daughter Deborah and I ... we probably started right after my husband died 23 years ago," says Shelley. "I just enjoy being with the people and seeing their faces. People say to me, 'I can't believe you're still going there.' You just don't realize the blessing that you'll get out of it. We think that we're a little bit better than anyone else, but homelessness is just one day away. You never know what might hit you. You think it won't, but you never know."
According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, approximately 3.5 million unique individuals, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness each year in America. The statistics are similarly dire locally, with more than 4,094 individuals experiencing homelessness each year in Chattanooga, according to information in the City's Blueprint to End Chronic Homelessness.
"Last year when we volunteered, we had the opportunity to sit at the tables and talk to some of the people who had come through for the service and one gentleman had just lost his job and was living in his truck," says Kimberly Clark, a member of Naomi Baptist Church in Lafayette, Ga., who volunteers at the Community Kitchen with her church group on Thanksgiving Day. "The majority of people are just one paycheck away from being on the street." Clark has taken her 17-year-old daughter to volunteer at the Community Kitchen for the past two years, and says that everyone should consider allowing their children that opportunity. "I think everyone should take their children to volunteer because here in America, we're very fortunate. We may think that we're poor, but yet we have cable, we have lights, we have a warm house to go to - but when you hit rock bottom...all kids need to see that. It could happen to anyone and really we just need to take care of each other," she says. "To see that there are people out on the streets that are hungry like that, it was reality. Even as an adult, I don't really ever think where my next meal comes from. It was an eye-opener for the both of us."
The Chattanooga Community Kitchen, serving more than 120,000 meals each year, amps up its services for holidays to make the experience as special as possible for those who might not have a holiday meal otherwise. "We try to make it the traditional Thanksgiving dinner you'd have at home. We're kind of normalizing the meal for them, so we will have turkey, ham, sides, sweet potatoes, pies ... all the stuff you might have at home," says Jens Christensen, assistant director of the Community Kitchen. "Instead of it being the cafeteria-style meal that we normally serve each day, we have them seated like at a restaurant and people bring them bread and a tray and drinks."
Behind the 40 turkeys, 2000 dinner rolls and 125 pumpkin pies that the Community Kitchen serves on an average Thanksgiving Day is a dedicated army of volunteers who make the experience go smoothly - and they are always looking for more who are willing to donate their time. "We thank the community for allowing us to do this and being a part of it. It's a special time of year period, but it always becomes a special time of year for us - and it's only because of volunteers that we're able to have the Thanksgiving meal," says Community Kitchen Executive Director Charlie Hughes. "It's a crazy, exhausting day but we'll get through it and have a great time and everyone will be blessed for it."
Hughes says that typically volunteers will find their niche with a particular part of the experience, whether that's filling drinks or eating and fellowshipping with the guests, and become protective of that role they play in the day. "We had a volunteer and his big deal was that he made the gravy. He usually wouldn't come in until 9 a.m., and heaven forbid someone had started making the gravy before he came in," says Hughes. "Well, one day, he was running late and at about 9:30 a.m. we started making the gravy. He came in and was so angry that we had started without him. That just would not do. The gravy we started was set aside for another day and he made the gravy for Thanksgiving Day."
For some families, like mother-daughter duo Clara and Deborah, volunteering on Thanksgiving Day has be¬come an unfailing tradition. The two wake up early each year to decorate the Community Kitchen and its tables to make the room a warmer place for the guests who spend their holiday there. "For the last two years, I've been taking Hershey's kisses and streaming them down the middle of the table. I just get so tickled watching them. They come in now looking to see what we've got," says Clara. "It was so drab looking, nobody did anything. I just couldn't stand it so we asked them if we could do that, so now we go in early and decorate and if they need us we'll stay and help serve."
Clara and Deborah are not the only ones who have come up with a creative way to contribute to the holiday experience at the Community Kitchen. "We had a single mom and a daughter and they asked if they could come in and play violin. They walked around the tables all day and played for the guests," says Hughes. "If people have ideas and things they want to do, they are welcome to let us know."
Christensen has been volunteering on Christmas Day at the Community Kitchen since 2004, and even though it started as a requirement of his job, he now says it wouldn't be his holiday without volunteering. "It became a choice for me. It's an experience to be working with folks that need something - not because of their choices but because of the situation," he says. "These folks wouldn't have a Thanksgiving, a Christmas ... a holiday. It becomes something really rewarding for the one doing the volunteerism."
Christensen says that many adults bring their children to the Community Kitchen on the holidays to experience serving others. "It's a family event for a lot of people. They start bringing the kids with them, you see the years change and the kids go to college and they come back and volunteer again," he says. "That's how they get together and spend time with their families. It is a pretty neat cycle to watch. There are people that have been doing it for 20 years."
Waconda Hughes, a Rock Springs, Ga., native and mother of five girls, is one of the many parents who have made the decision to allow their children to serve for the holidays. "We're just letting them see how blessed they are. Teenagers these days, they just don't understand," says Hughes. "I'm not a materialistic person by any means, and I don't want my children to be like that. I want them to be able to love everybody and show them the love of Christ. It's an exciting thing. It isn't just a matter of serving food."
Christensen says that more often than not, parents take their children to volunteer to teach the children something, but in the end both the parents and the children gain from the experience. "The younger people go into it thinking that they are going to be doing something for someone else," he says. "The parents actually think that they are going to teach their kids a lesson, and they have turned it on its head and it's more of a blessing than work."