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Members of Cleveland's homeless community join members of the city's downtown business establishments and passersby at a potluck held at Johnston Park. The event was planned and hosted by volunteers associated with Inspiring Tomorrow's Leader's Today, a youth group initiative of Family Cornerstones.
They're just people. They need help like everyone else.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A crowd of more than 60 homeless and other people in need joined members of Cleveland's downtown business community and passers-by for a free potluck luncheon Monday at Johnston Park.

"Community Potluck" was a project conceived, developed and organized by Inspiring Tomorrow's Leaders Today, a youth group program associated with Family Cornerstones, a not-for-profit service organization.

"We're giving a bunch of free meals out today to homeless people and those in need, and even the business community and anyone who would like to come and have a free meal," said Lily Freeman, a senior at Bradley Central High School.

The goal of the event is to erode barriers between the homeless and the wider community, said Destiny Dye, a senior at Cleveland High School.

Opening conversations with the homeless is a way to "make our community more whole," Freeman said.

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People ate, laughed and talked over long folding tables while volunteers served fried chicken, potatoes, beans and just about anything one would expect to find at a large Southern picnic.

The Family Cornerstones youth group served food and drinks and even provided entertainment, as Ben Absher, a recent high school graduate, played acoustic guitar while his brother Ben sang.

"We decided to do this as a way to bring the community together between the homeless and the whole community as one meal together," Dye said. "They're just people. They need help like everyone else."

A table of giveaway items such as bottles of hand sanitizer, toothbrushes and medicinal dosing spoons underscored the basic needs of many people who were drawn to the free luncheon.

The project was inspired by a similar event held in the Martin Luther King Boulevard area in Chattanooga, Freeman said.

The event was supported by grants and sponsorships, organizers said.

At least 16 organizations, including Episcopal Appalachian Ministries, Publix and Impact Cleveland contributed to the event.

"With the luncheon, the teens are attempting to address the negative thoughts and stigma of homelessness and poverty in Cleveland and Bradley County," said Chrissy Pugh of Family Cornerstones in a recent news release.

Passer-by Carteious Sivels praised the event.

"A lot of people need this," Sivels said. "A lot of people are low on money and don't have enough food to eat."

Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at paul.leach.press@gmail.com.

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