Cook: Let's turn 20,000 meals into 2,000 coats, blankets and gloves

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Troy Rogers, left, and Tony Oliver pass out bagged lunches on the Westside on Tuesday, May 5, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

When the pandemic began, Troy Rogers and Tony Oliver bought $100 worth of Walmart groceries and began feeding people across the city.

"During a bad time, we wanted them to know there are people who care," Rogers said.

"It became contagious," Oliver said.

Soon, they began serving five or six days a week; 100 meals became 1,000. Many of you got involved. Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator, and Oliver, owner of TNT Cleaning Services, created a network of friends and strangers. You sent donations; others helped prepare food.

And 1,000 meals became 10,000.

"Always help people," Oliver said. "One thing is for certain and one thing for sure. At a blink of an eye, it could be you."

"Every day, I was humbled," Rogers said. "They are just like us. Something didn't go right, and without proper help and support, we could all be like that. I'm one or two paychecks away."

Two months ago - on Sept. 24, Rogers says - they reached a milestone that should go down in our pandemic history.

They served their 20,000th meal.

Now, with winter around the corner, they are shifting their focus. Once again, you're invited to help.

"Coats, gloves, anything that keeps guys warm during winter," Rogers said. "Blankets, coats, sleeping bags, beanies, gloves."

Rogers and Oliver partnered with Jamaine Akins, Chris Sands and Bryant Ellis to organize this winter coat drive. In the coming weeks, they'll drive through the Westside, Alton Park, MLK Boulevard, East 11th Street, the shelters and rec centers.

Folks sleeping outside. Families without coats. Families sleeping in cars.

And we can help.

"What do you do for people who can never pay you back?" Rogers asks.

During the pandemic, I often thought of Rogers and Oliver and what I called their Open-Up hearts. Instead of hunkering and bunkering down, they opened up towards generosity. And by opening up towards others, they warded off fear and isolation by creating community. Generosity became a refuge, a vaccine against the doom and gloom, an off-ramp from pessimism and despair.

A meal given in love feeds both receiver and giver.

Think about the accumulated goodness of serving 20,000 meals.

Think of the ways these 20,000 meals contributed to the soul of our city.

Compare it to 20,000 insults. Or stealing 20,000 items. Or spending 20,000 hours on Instagram.

Our actions aren't neutral. This virus? We fight it with masks. Our mask mandates are based in cause-and-effect reasoning: If you wear this mask, then virus transmission decreases.

Isn't the same true with generosity?

If we give more, then suffering decreases.

If we give more, then well-being increases.

"The greatest form of service is being able to serve someone who can't pay you back. and serve them with excellence," Rogers said. "Especially in the time we are now."

Their plan: Distribute coats, blankets and gloves in early December.

Here's how you can help:

Collect warm items from your home. Even better? Organize your office. Your classroom. Your Sunday school, neighborhood, Girl Scout troop or basketball team. Instead of two coats, collect 20.

Then, contact Rogers (423-305-2707 or or Tony Oliver (423-994-1562) or Bryant Ellis (347-447-3569). They'll arrange for a pick-up.

If you're a family in need, let them know.

Or, you can send a donation. Contact Grind Smart Foundation - a local non-profit created by Sands, youth pastor at Olivet Baptist - at (Sands, Lakweshia Ewing and Carmen Davis also created We Over Me, another beautiful example of this Open Up heart.)

"God gives us a gift," Rogers likes to say. "Our gift to him is what we do for each other."

David Cook can be reached at

photo David Cook