By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Gainesville Daily Register
Lonely and hungry area residents have an avenue of relief this week thanks to the efforts of Gainesville’s Whaley United Methodist Church.
A free Thanksgiving dinner is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday at Stanford House, 401 W. Garnett St.
Church administrator Stephanie Stogdill said roughly 400 locals are expected to dine on turkey, dressing and homemade desserts via take-out or walk-in visits.
The year 2012, she added, represents the 19th holiday season in a row that Whaley organizers have reached out to feed the populace.
“It’s not broken and we’re not fixing it,” Stogdill said Monday.
But Stogdill said the event is not simply about providing food to the financially challenged.
“I think we probably have as many who come for the fellowship, so that they’re not alone on the holidays, as we do people who are literally hungry,” she said. “It’s just a joy and a privilege to be able to offer that.”
Whaley organizer Brenda Hinkle agreed — and explained that the free annual dinner began as an outreach to the homeless before officials realized their church wasn’t the ideal place to offer this service.
“The first year we had it, we had about 20 people show up,” Hinkle said. “And then we figured out there weren’t a great deal of homeless people wanting to go to church on Thanksgiving Day.”
The event endured, however, and Stanford House became its home.
And Hinkle said that through the years, the meal has become something quite beyond free eating.
“For whatever reason, we weren’t necessarily feeding the homeless,” she said. “Yes, there are probably those who can’t afford the food and this is certainly free. But year after year, we see the same people who come because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Hinkle said the Stanford House provides the public a setting where they can visit and dine on Thanksgiving Day without facing a church sermon, even though it’s a local church that has made the event possible.
And those who visit each year with “nowhere else to go,” she added, are not mentally ill or dangerous.
They are just alone.
“It’s just filling a space of loneliness because there are a lot of lonely people,” Hinkle said. “When they come here, you can look out there and see them laughing and visiting.”
Hinkle added that beyond feeding visitors, the Whaley dinner also results in hundreds of take-out meals for local recipients of the Meals on Wheels program.
In some cases, those who visit the Stanford House in need are given extra Thanksgiving food to deliver to others in a similar position.
“We can’t have enough help for those who need it, and I think with this economy, there’s always the need,” Hinkle said. “There are people who never thought they would be in the shape they’re in, and this makes their holiday a little bit easier.”