Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

Sixteen years ago, the Reynolds family sponsored one head-start class for the first time by simply pooling their funds instead of spending money on each other for Christmas. As the years went by, one head-start class turned into a head-start class and a family of six…then a widowed mother and her three children. They came across families who couldn’t afford to pay their power bill and families who could not pay for groceries. They came across helpless children with careless parents, and struggling parents with grateful children. But out of all the people who crossed their path, they could not turn one truly needy family away. As the need quickly outgrew the funds the family had pooled, a friend suggested to have a benefit dinner to see if they could raise more money. What started as a good idea in a garage one night has turned into the community-wide event that provides Christmas to hundreds of children in the Tri-Cities. Now in its 9th year, the dinner has been very successful in the past. With a silent auction filled with items donated from local businesses, a band, and lots of good food, it’s astounding to see the community come together to make a difference.

Hunger First, a nonprofit food bank in Kingsport, presents the dinner. Since it’s beginning, Hunger First’s mission has been to educate and empower the low income, no-income, and the homeless so that they can work together in solidarity with one another to remove barriers that cause hunger and poverty throughout Tennessee and Virginia. Their expansion to host the benefit dinner has allowed them to truly impact the community. In addition to Hunger First, any other local businesses have sponsored the event, including VIPSEEN Magazine, McCall Commercial Fencing, The Outdoorsmen, Exalt Academy of Cosmetology, High Rise Medical Supply, Synergy Media Solutions, South East Mowing, LLC, Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant, Fuller Paving Maintenance, European Autosports, and more.

Alex tells about the benefit from her point of view over the last several years she has been involved…

“You listen to me and you listen well,” my grandfather said as he looked into the eyes of the seven-year-old me. “It doesn’t matter what you get for Christmas. What matters is how you give. Those are the gifts you remember.” he said. I looked up at him, nodded, and continued to stare at the presents gleaming from underneath the bright sparkling tree. Although I did not think much of his words then, I always remembered them. It was not until years after his death when I realized exactly what his words meant.

“I’ve got a size 5 girl’s shoe!” I shouted from my side of the room.

“Susie wears a 5. Put her name on that box. Does anyone have a boy’s 7 shoe? I can’t find John’s shoes!” my mom yelled from the other side of the room.

Shoes, coats, outfits, toys, wrapping paper, and people filled our living room. The sound of paper being cut, tape being ripped, and people laughing rang through our house. We worked late through the evening trying to get all of the gifts wrapped. Eighteen little boys and girls were anxiously awaiting their Christmas party for their head-start class. They were not expecting any presents, Santa, or any of his elves to visit them at their party– or even their home for that matter. Little did they know what they would find the following morning. My family and I could hardly contain our excitement.

I cannot tell you a single item I received that Christmas. I do not remember what my stocking held, or if I even received anything I wanted. I do however; remember that the only thing a little boy named William in that class asked for was a cowboy hat. I remember three little girls were so excited to get their coats that they wore them the entire time–regardless of the sweat rolling down their already pink cheeks. I remember that every child, having opened a coat, shoes, an outfit, and toys, chose to put their shoes and coat on before they even opened the toy. Those are the gifts I remember. “It’s like the loaves and the fish.” I remember my mom said after a busy day of shopping for the families. “I looked in the bag and there was one toy left, then my friend called and asked when we could meet her to pick up a truck full of toys that were donated to her office.”

No matter how many people come our way, or how little our funds seem to be, over the years we have learned that God always has a clever way of taking care of us. Whether He leads us to the store with the exact number of coats we need, or sends toys by the truckload, He always has a way of coming through. When things like that happen, I cannot help but think of my grandfather. It’s almost as though it’s his way of saying “See? I told you. You just keep giving kid. It’s better than any gift you could ever imagine finding under that tree. God’s taking care of you. So let Him.”

One of my favorite stories happened just a few years ago. After receiving several donated toys, the lady who brought them explained that she had an extra girl’s outfit and pair of shoes. She said she didn’t know why, but she felt like we needed it. It was Christmas Eve and as the businesses in the area started to close, the phone rang. “I need a miracle,” Howard explained. He told us that there was a little girl that he needed gifts for. We knew that we only had one leftover coat, and the outfit that we’d received the day before likely wouldn’t work. We took down her sizes although the stores were closed. We checked the outfit and it was her size exactly. The shoes were as well. “Oh, and Bek? She loves Hannah Montana.” Tears welled up in her eyes as she held the only outfit we had left. Hannah Montana was on the shirt.

I know this year will be no different. Our list of families is ever-growing, but God knows exactly what we need. The benefit dinner along with the support of the community will help with the bulk of it. Needless to say, we stay busy this time of year! But the hours of preparation, long nights spent wrapping, and endless days searching for the best prices are never viewed as laborious. They are however, what our Christmas is all about– just like the words on my grandfather’s tombstone– “It is more blessed to give than to receive”.

If you want to help make a difference in a local child’s life this year, contact Alex at 423-340-1470. Whether you want to help wrap presents, shop for kids, donate, help plan the dinner, or collect donations, your help will make a difference!

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