Leake County Community Outreach Center continues Thanksgiving tradition after nearly 30 years of service

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The Leake County Community Outreach Center in Walnut Grove continues to serve free Thanksgiving meals throughout the county each year.

They’ve been planning and preparing their Thanksgiving meal since early October, and when the time came to serve it on Saturday, November 18, it was fresh and hot and warmly received by more than 300 people in the greater Leake County community. 

That’s the kind of spirit that continues to motivate the volunteers at the Community Outreach Services Center of Leake County who committed themselves nearly 30 years ago to make Thanksgiving a true gesture of thanks and appreciation for the elderly living independently or in nursing care homes, for mothers with dependent children, and for any of their receptive neighbors living in the towns and villages scattered across the county.

It’s been 27 years since the group of Leake County community volunteers decided that they would provide this service for the prior generations of hard workers who made this world of abundance possible but somehow came upon hard times themselves. 

Doris Henson, co-founder of the Outreach Center and leader of the volunteer team that never fails to show up for the Thanksgiving celebration, lay the groundwork for the center in 1996 and was joined by a growing number of friends and associates who incorporated the center in 2011.  

Bobbie and Doris Henson, co-founders of Leake County Community Outreach Services Center in Walnut Grove

“Our volunteers are really good people who enjoy taking on community concerns and projects,” Henson said. “They enjoy the company and fellowship of our seniors when we knock on their doors and they are just happy to see us.

“We are community based, sustained by the people of the county. We don’t have county grants and allowances to support us. We are fully dependent upon our community. We do get some support from the faith-based community and sororities. Both JSU and Alcorn and the other HBCUs have come down here to help replenish our food stock that we dispensed over the past year. They did an awesome job of coming in here recently and making sure these shelves were stocked.”

 Like the clients they serve, Henson said, the volunteers come in from all parts of Leake County — from Lena, Carthage, Ludlow the Hills, and Galilee. 

“We’ve been here since 1996 and people are used to us and are familiar with what we do. So, it’s just a given fact that we’re going to be doing something for the holidays and they want to be a part of it.”

One of the unique features of the current program is that the volunteers and staff prepare and deliver the meals a few days ahead of the holiday itself. 

“We have people out in the various neighborhoods and communities who identify the need across the county. Those volunteers come back and report that they have X-number of meal requests inside of our county,” she said. “Those are our priority meals. We make sure we do those first, and then we prepare meals for the walk-ins and others after we’ve prepped and sent the priority meals out.” 

The volunteer cooks and food handlers help prepare the pre-ordered meals either at the center or they will cook some items at their own homes and bring them to the center on the designated day of delivery, Henson said.

“We have drivers who come in and deliver the food to the various communities,” said Henson. “Normally, we’ll have eight cooks and the same number of volunteer drivers.”

The deliveries were all done from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. the Saturday before Thanksgiving. So, within a four-hour window, all the meals were prepared and delivered according to the pre-order list. 

The center is based in the town of Walnut Grove, and the deliveries are made to every town and community in Leake County. 

“People come from everywhere in the county to work as volunteers,” Henson said. “And we serve people in all the diverse communities. People receiving the services are added to a list on file at the center and no one is left out.”

The number of dinner guests has grown over the years. “In 2011,” Henson said, “we had anticipated having 100 people to sign on, but by the time we had finished serving, there were more than 300. And each year after that, we kept getting more and more requests. The year before the COVID pandemic hit, we were serving over 500.”

Maxine Fortune lives in Walnut Grove and looks upon the Thanksgiving meal service as a way of bringing families together and of establishing a spiritual link with one’s neighbors. 

“Thanksgiving is a time for us to enjoy family, and to make sure that we remember the many people who are less fortunate than ourselves. Some people don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. Thanksgiving for me is about sharing and giving back to the community. 

“Our outreach center goes out into the community to feed those in need,” Fortune said. “I’m on the board that does the actual planning of the meal and I’m also on the end where we fix the meals. And I’m also involved in the delivery, where we get the plates out to the people in the community.

“Before the pandemic, we conducted a sit-down dinner for anyone who wanted to come in and enjoy their dinner in the company of others,” Fortune said. “Since the pandemic, however, we have not been letting people come in to eat. We have fixed up to 500 plates in recent years, with most of them being sent to Carthage or Lena. Or we might have someone from the community here in Walnut Grove to come in and pick up plates for their neighbors.” 

Fortune said she will celebrate Thanksgiving with nearly 40 members of her family in Scott County, where she was born.

Gloria Stiles lives in Lena and has been a part of the Thanksgiving food ceremony for six years.

“I first met Doris thru a clothes distribution program she had begun some years ago,” Stiles said. “I would collect clothes from the Salvation Army and other centers and take them to her. In the process, she started telling me about how she fixed food for Thanksgiving and that she needed help distributing the plates. So, I stepped in and started taking names of people interested in getting the meals.”

Stiles began delivering 100 plates herself and says the need keeps growing and uplifting our spirits at the center. 

“She puts out some food,” Stiles said of Henson’s effort. “It’s been growing year after year. I’m not a regular at the center, but I’m a volunteer on call when needed.” 

Stiles spent her holiday with her sister in Fairburn, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

Cynthia Johnson has been affiliated with the program since it first began. 

“I’ve been there from the get-go — 27 years ago,” she says.  “People were really excited about having a pre-Thanksgiving meal. Some single-parent families didn’t have funds enough to prepare a complete holiday meal. And so, our program came along just in time to help them. 

“We first had just the one location in Walnut Grove, but so many people started participating that we had to open a second location at the church in Lena. We served about 300 at each location. There were lots of participants and many donations. And many people helped with the food and the distribution also,” Johnson said.

During the time of the COVID outbreak, the center gave out family bags that contained the makings of a traditional dinner, but the family had to prepare it themselves. For the elderly, they had volunteer cooks to come to their homes and prepare the meals for them.

Henson says she is not affected by what some of her associates call the “Holiday Blues.” 

“I have never dreaded the holiday season, never dreaded helping the community during this season,” she says. “I learned from my parents that this is the time of year when we all should be excited because we knew that something extra special was getting ready to happen and that there was going to be a lot of good food and surprises, with people giving and receiving fruits and toys and other gifts. It’s like a calling for me.

“I feel a little guilty if I’m eating well and I know that there are people out there – my neighbors or my friends – who weren’t as fortunate as we were to have a full course meal. So, I can only enjoy my holiday season after I have helped my brothers and sisters, my neighbors.” 

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Leake County Community Outreach Center continues Thanksgiving tradition after nearly 30 years of service

By Earnest McBride
November 27, 2023