The gymnasium of the University City branch of the YMCA recently was transformed into a huge dining facility that served Thanksgiving dinner to about 700 people.
The event took place 6-8 p.m. Nov. 20; for many, that was their only Thanksgiving dinner.
It was a heartwarming sight to see children laughing, jumping and skipping into the building, excited about the meal. It also was touching to observe seniors enjoying every last spoonful of their desserts.
Some came from local shelters, while others may have been among what we call the working poor.
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After the dinner, many of the guests were given bags of groceries to help them prepare meals at home.
The project started about 14 years ago with about 35 families from the Derita community attending. There were no sponsors back then, but now the event works with a host of local churches and businesses.
“It has really exploded over the past five years,” said Paul Petr, executive director of the University YMCA.
He said the number of churches involved also has grown. This year, that list included Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Elevation Church, Northside Baptist Church, St. Paul Baptist Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and University City United Methodist Church.
They all worked together to collect food, prepare and serve the meals, and provide the bags of groceries. They also did all the setting up and cleaning up.
“We work more effectively when we work together. … It brings people together. Let’s not just nourish stomachs; let’s also nourish souls,” says Petr.
Several organizations worked to help get people to the dinner, including The Salvation Army Center of Hope Shelter, the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte, ARC of North Carolina, Latin American Coalition, Harvest Center of Charlotte and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Transportation was provided by YMCA and Lake Norman Charter School buses.
YMCA teen leaders helped distribute bags of groceries to attendees. Boy Scouts from St. Paul Baptist had helped sort the food earlier.
“One of the cool things about this project is that that barriers get broken down,” Petr said. “We can always achieve more together, and this is a great example of what our community can achieve.”
Even the entertainment had lots of diversity. There were dancers from the various churches, as well as YMCA dancers, the men’s choir from St. Paul and a harpist from University City United Methodist Church.
Children from YMCA’s after-school and preschooler programs made centerpieces and place mats.
Along with Food Lion, other businesses that made the YMCA dinner possible included: BJ’s Wholesale Club, University City Chick-fil-A, Restaurant Depot, Chicken Box, S&D Coffee & Tea, Texas Roadhouse, Harris Teeter, Costco, Sam’s Club, Carolina Rent A Car, Shane’s Rib Shack, Anuvia and FSI (a paper products company) and Marco Awards.
Planning for the Thanksgiving dinner begins in the summer. Petr said he welcomes new participants, community volunteers, organizations and contributions.
“It is truly a blessing to be a part of this event,” he said. “Our board, our staff and (our) volunteers are amazing.”
He quoted verses from the Bible, Matthew 25: 35 and 40, that fit the event:
“ ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.’ … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ”