Four hundred plates were served last week during an annual community Thanksgiving dinner and not only are organizers looking ahead to upcoming community-service projects for Christmas, but also to the 2023 Thanksgiving dinner.
Presented by Meet Me at the Court and The Bailey Family, the ninth annual Sharion Bailey Whitlock Soul Food Community Dinner: Good Food for the Body and Soul was held Nov. 12 in the rear parking lot of the TAC House.
Veronica Bailey, founder and CEO of Meet Me at the Court, said organizers arrived at 8:30 a.m. to set up for the event, which was a drive-through service, and vehicles began lining up at 10:30 a.m.
By the time organizers began handing out plates filled with soul food at noon -- the time the event was scheduled to begin --, the line snaked from the TAC House parking lot, south on Arkansas Avenue and east to the South Arkansas Arts Center on Fifth Street.
The group remained onsite until the last plate was handed out just after 4 p.m..
MMC was assisted by the Sugar Town Riders Motorcycle Club, Dr. Steve and Nancy Owens and El Dorado police Chief Kenny Hickman.
Hickman also served as grand marshal of the event, which honors veterans, first responders and educators in addition providing the community with a Thanksgiving meal.
"It went (fantastically). The Kitchen Committee worked tirelessly and we enjoyed it. It was a great experience," said Bailey, whose late sister is the namesake of the event.
Bailey said the distribution count of 400 includes plates that were delivered to residents throughout El Dorado and Union County.
Those who were served onsite came by vehicle, bicycle and on foot.
Local churches brought people by the van load. A group came from Hampton and another from Hot Springs, Bailey said.
Workers at a local fast-food restaurant stopped by after having called Bailey with a request for 11 plates.
"They work at a fast-food place, but they wanted a hot soul food meal," Bailey said with a laugh. "So, we honored that request. We didn't limit the plates. We're there to meet the need of each person."
Hickman reported that the line averaged 45 vehicles throughout the day.
MMC presented plaques to Essie Tubbs, a 40-year U.S. Army veteran, and Bobby Hardrick, a retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot, in honor of their military service.
The presentation came with a congratulatory speech from El Dorado City Council member Willie McGhee.
Bailey said MMC is evaluating this year's event and is considering ways to improve the 2023 dinner -- including ideas to move the line along faster and to streamline the delivery service.
She said she appreciates the patience of those who waited in line for a plate.
"They knew that the line was long and I'm glad they felt the dinner was important enough to wait. That meant a lot," Bailey said.
"We had all kind of fun. You just would not believe. Lord will and Lord bless, we look forward to next year," she continued. "We were overflowing with food and at the end of the day, there was nothing left to take home, so we accomplished our mission.
Next up, MMC youth members are planning to deliver a load of canned goods and other non-perishable food items to the Salvation Army of El Dorado's food pantry.
The group has made two such deliveries since September as a part of their monthly mission project and after the second delivery last month, the children set a goal of donating at least 1,000 canned goods to the Salvation Army by the end of the year.
Bailey said the group is well past the halfway mark with more than 600 items donated and the youth want to meet their goal by Christmas.
She said MMC is working to arrange the delivery next week before Thanksgiving Day.
MMC is mixing up its community-service program for Christmas by adding a new activity this year, Bailey said.
The group is accepting submissions for the annual Christmas on the Court and Sharion Bailey Whitlock Angel Tree programs, which will be held in December.
The deadline is noon Dec. 1 to submit names, addresses and wish lists for gifts that will be given to senior citizens and families with children.
"That gives us enough time to get all of the names and addresses and (clothing) sizes coordinated and to make out our mailing list. We will also be mailing gift cards this year," Bailey said.
Christmas on the Court was typically held on the basketball court in the area of Lester Street and Ouachita Avenue in the St. Louis neighborhood, where Bailey grew up.
The event included the Angel Tree and loads of activities -- food, games, Santa, etc. -- for the family.
MMC revised the event during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic by agreeing to adopt areas of town and take Christmas on the Court there.
Last year, MMC adopted Hudson Place Apartments to serve families in the apartment complex and surrounding area.
Details about this year's event, including the area that will be adopted, are forthcoming.
"We will be giving out smoked turkeys, hams and rotisseri chickens and we will be including our senior citizens, plus the children," Bailey said.
'Another way we can help'
She said MMC has come up with another idea of serving the community and is excited to introduce a new addition to its Christmas activities next month: Secret Santa.
"Santa will appear in different places around town and he is going to pick an individual and bless them with a gift card for Christmas or cash," she said.
She said Santa will randomly approach someone at any given time or location in El Dorado, identify themselves and offer the person a gift.
"It will be random acts of kindness in December and it will include Meet Me at the Court youth so Santa may be a youth or an adult," Bailey explained.
She said the idea for Secret Santa stemmed from the number of calls she has received in recent months for assistance with paying utilities, buying groceries and requests for Love Baskets, which are filled with food and distributed to the community as a part of MMC youth's monthly mission projects.
"And that's another way that we can help because people are in need of different things and this way, we can just present them with a gift card or monetary gifts so they can do some of the things they need to get them and their children ready for Christmas," Bailey said.
For more information or to sign up for the Sharion Bailey Whitlock Angel Tree, call Bailey at 870-310-0391.