Jake Sessions, then a radio host on WTRP, asked listeners if they thought a holiday meal for those in need was a good idea.
“I asked the audience if they thought we should do it and they all said yes,” Sessions recalled, saying that since that day community support has poured in for the “Up All Night” annual Thanksgiving and Christmas meals.
The community, volunteers and local officials all have helped make the holiday dinners a success for more than two decades.
During that first meal in 1990, 500 people were fed with $500 and donations.
“The community was generous,” Sessions said. “It was just overwhelming.”
For the first six years the dinners were held at churches, a restaurant and even a night club. The meals later came to find their homes at Cannon Street Elementary School, where thousands have been fed for the past 14 years.
“We came (to Cannon Street) when the principal was Bobby Brooks, and he came to every (meal),” Sessions said. “He was working, cooking and helping.”
Bishop Robert Darden, who helps coordinate the meals, began volunteering his time in 1999. Darden saw the meals advertised in the newspaper and decided he wanted to help feed the hungry.
“I came from a poor family in Lannett (Ala.), and a lot of days I went without food,” Darden said, saying hunger is a crisis that the meal helps fight against.
This year the meals again will be at Cannon Street, despite the school’s recent closure.
“We’re really glad that the school board and superintendent will let us use Cannon Street again this year,” said Frank Cox, a former LaGrange city councilman and one of the organizers of the dinners.
Returning to the closed school will be painful, Cox said.
“For me going there, knowing that the children won’t be there and might not ever come back hurts me dearly,” he said. “If I’m there walking around laughing and crying it’ll be because of that.”
Darden expects this year’s meal will be larger than those in the past.
“It’s going to be a lot of people this year,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that are down on their luck so we’ll probably feed more than we did last year.”
The holiday meals, served on both Thanksgiving and Christmas, are open to all who attend.
“If a guy pulls up in a suit, I don’t care how he looks, I’m going to feed him,” Sessions said. “I ain’t never seen Jesus and it might be him.”
Sessions said the goal is to ensure everyone who comes gets a good, hot meal.
“I look at the plates and make sure they’re heavy because some of them might not get another meal that day,” he said. “I want them to have to carry (the plate) with two hands.”
Darden said he really enjoys seeing the hungry get fed and being happy at the meals.
The dinners also are for those who need a place to go on the holidays as well as those who need to be with others.
“It’s all about fellowship on a holiday,” Sessions said. “We also want the lonely, who may be widows or widowers who don’t have anyone for the holidays, to come.”
The events rely on home-cooked dishes, donations and volunteers to feed anywhere from 700 to 1,000 people.
“The community and people around here have been awesome. We have a lot of people come to help out from 6 a.m. until we leave,” Sessions said. “There are a lot of people who made this possible.”
Cox said he’s worried about receiving enough donations and volunteers for the upcoming meals.
“This year it seems it’s coming closer and I’m really worried. My son … said it’s like this every year and we always make it,” Cox said. “Although I may worry about it all the time, (the community) always seems to come through.”
Two of the community volunteers have struck in Cox’s mind after the 20 years of working the dinner.
“One lady worked every year until she passed away,” he said. “She always walked in the door and went straight to the pots and pans. She wouldn’t let anyone else do them.”
Another volunteer was a student who originally had not planned to attend the dinner.
“A young lady from LaGrange College was stranded because her parents were late getting here for Thanksgiving,” Cox recalled. “She called me on Thanksgiving, came and worked that day and then the next year. Then every year for four years after, I got a card and donations from her.”
Other repeat volunteers include some local government officials, Cox said.
“(County) Commissioner Buck Davis, he’s known for his famous giblet gravy he brings,” he said, saying Davis has attended a majority of the meals.
“It started back yonder when I saw the ad asking for people to come help,” Davis said, saying he’s helped out for the past 15 years.
Most of the years Davis made 9 gallons of giblet gravy to bring, but last year was the first year he did not because someone else was providing it. Instead he worked with the hot food.
Davis said he enjoys seeing smiles on the faces of kids and adults being fed good, hot food
“That’s the only reason I do it, to help the community,” he said. “I just do it out of the heart.”
Davis has helped two women he met at the dinners.
“I met one lady and her family, and I gave them my card when they were leaving and said ‘Call me if you need anything,’ ” he said. “Two or three weeks later she called and said ‘I don’t have anything to eat,’ and my daughter and I got a box of groceries and took them over to her.”
Davis helped the other woman buy Christmas gifts for her family and children.
Troup County Commissioner Richard English also attends the dinners and “misses only when has to go see about family,” Cox said.
State Court Judge Jeanette Little has spent many years helping do whatever is needed to feed people on the holidays.
“Most of what I’ve done is delivery,” she said. “I’ve also prepared boxes and gotten them ready to go out too.”
Little isn’t sure when she started helping deliver meals, but last year was her most memorable.
Last year Little, along with her son, delivered plates of food to residents at Amberwood apartments, where each recipient was greeted with a hug from Little’s then-2-year-old granddaughter.
“She had big fun,” Little said. “That has been the most fun.”
Little volunteers because she believes people should help each other.
“If you have the time to show up and help other individuals, you out to do it,” she said. “I think that’s the way my father in Heaven wants it.”
The community’s efforts along with organizers have kept the dinner a tradition for more than 20 years.
“I don’t think God would allow us to do this for 20 years if it wasn’t a good thing,” Sessions said. “I get a lot of joy out of it. I call it a passion or calling.”
Cox said Jake and his efforts with the dinners “have been a God gift to the city of LaGrange.”
“His efforts to be the most outspoken person for us has contributed to us feeding from 50 people to thousands for the last 20 years,” he said.
— For information on what to donate or how to volunteer, call Sessions at (706) 884-6963 or 884-1581. For information in Spanish, call Elia Baltes, director of multicultural services at DASH for LaGrange, at (706) 298-0221, Ext. 105, or (706) 333-9774.
Matt Chambers can be reached at email@example.com or (706) 884-7311, Ext. 228.