On an unusually warm Thanksgiving eve, the Cartersville Civic Center was teeming with hundreds of people. Many were there for the cornucopia of free foodstuffs — chicken and mashed potatoes and cakes galore — while others were in attendance for other services, such as haircuts, blanket giveaways and donations of basic necessities like toothpaste, toilet paper and soap.
“More and more people are coming out,” said event organizer Ronnie Richardson. “This year is larger than last year — we’re seeing a whole lot of interaction.”
Richardson, the 53-year-old lead pastor at Freedom Worship Center, began the annual event 10 years ago at his church off Cassville Road.
“We just started with a Thanksgiving dinner, providing for the community,” he said. “Two years after doing that, it grew to this.”
The move to the Cartersville Civic Center was accompanied by a new namesake — Feed Bartow, the moniker by which the event has been known for the last eight years.
“It’s a huge opportunity to give, an opportunity to express the love of Christ to the fellow man who is down and out,” said volunteer Tonya Veitch, 47. “Just to be able to show the love of Jesus in a very tangible way, and I look forward to it every year.”
At Wednesday’s event, which ran from 2-6 p.m., Richardson said at least 2,000 plates of hot food were passed out.
“It was all about bringing the community together, not just a meal for a day, but bringing families together at the table of giving thanks,” he said.
Freedom Worship Center Assistant Pastor Jonathan Goltz said he couldn’t even venture to guess the volume of green beans, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes volunteers churned through Wednesday.
“It’s quite a bit of food,” he said. “I would say about 600 pounds of chicken, 800 pounds of dressing.”
Many attendees, Richardson said, have fallen on the hardest of hard times.
“We do have homeless here, but we’ve also got people that’s coming from The Guest House, from Parkway North,” he said. “We’ve actually gone out with buses and bringing those people in.”
But not everybody who shows up for the yearly meal are individuals mired in poverty.
“We see all walks of life,” Richardson noted. “Sometimes, it might just be a single person who needs a family for the day, so they’re coming out and celebrating Thanksgiving with the family of Bartow County.”
Those served by the event include quite a few community servants themselves.
“We’re sending to-go plates out to the first responders, our Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, our Cartersville Police Department, the post office,” Richardson said. “We’re sending out food all over the place.”
Goltz said that turnout for the event has increased tremendously over the last few years.
“There’s so many people out there that can’t get here today,” he said, “that maybe Bartow Transit or somebody like that would help and sponsor, bringing people out.”
Amidst a cacophony of Christmas music and gospel favorites, dozens upon dozens of attendees waited in line to peruse the community coat room. And even with 16 stylists on duty, the line for free haircuts seemed to stretch just as long.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be a blessing to the community, to reach out and show the love of Jesus and be a helping hand,” Goltz said.
Continuing, he said the popularity of the event clearly demonstrates a demand for similar services and events within the community. Among other things, he said he would love to see a master list compiled of food pantries throughout Bartow County.
The resources are there, he said, but those in need of services "just don't know about it."
Veitch likewise said she believes more public information on such services is needed.
"The biggest thing that I would say would be an effort to educate [people] on how you can get out of the situation that you find yourself in," she said.
Freedom Worship Center was far from the only church participating in Feed Bartow. Members from more than two dozen other faith groups, representing a bounty of denominations, likewise volunteered their time and services for the annual Thanksgiving event.
In that, Richardson said Feed Bartow isn't just a way to "give back" — he also said it represents a golden opportunity to put the teachings of the Bible into action in the local community.
“This whole ministry is based off Matthew 25, where Jesus says ‘When I was hungry, you fed me, when I was naked, you clothed me, when I was sick, you visited me, when I was in prison, you came to me,’” Richardson said. “He said ‘If you’ve done that to any of these, you’ve done it unto Me.’”