Sunday marked about 35 years that Geraldine Singleton has organized and cooked a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings for many Sumterites who might not otherwise have one.
The oldest of 13 children growing up in South Sumter, Singleton said her …
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Thanksgiving and the holiday season is a time many spend with family and friends over nap-inducing feasts, gifts and good spirits. That is not the case for everyone. The holidays can be an especially hard time for many, whether they are in need of food, shelter, refuge or a helping hand to keep them from falling into their individual version of darkness. Not everyone is so fortunate to find food and family for which to be thankful. This series examines the people who and groups that take time and resources from their own life, their own families, to support others in need. Many of those featured provide year-round support, but this time of year can shine a spotlight on what people do not have when the excess is so celebrated. What these people are trying to make sure everyone does have is something to be thankful for.
The oldest of 13 children growing up in South Sumter, Singleton said her grandmother, Sally Gamble, who lived nearby on Harvin Street, had a gift for hospitality and cooking.
"She did that with the community," Singleton said last week in the midst of preparations for the big meal. "If one person is there and eats, then everybody eats. Everybody got together as one big, happy family, and a lot of us family members would be at her house all the time."
Adding to that foundation, working as a home health aide in the late 1980s touched her heart. Back then, she said, many people would give out boxes of food items to seniors during the holidays.
"A lot of those seniors couldn't cook though because they couldn't open canned goods," Singleton said. "Some of them would have those canned goods pushed under the bed or wherever they could get them since they couldn't cook."
So, preparing hot meals and delivering them to home-bound seniors was added to her traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.
A COMMUNITY-WIDE OPERATION
Singleton is quick to say that preparing a Thanksgiving meal for 800 people isn't a one-person operation.
Local businesses, including Cut Rate Drugs and Coffee Shop, Evergreen Beauty Supply and Liberty Seafood, among others, contribute financial donations in the weeks before the meal. She said she started shopping for the big dinner in late October/early November.
Singleton also estimated she has about 40 volunteers who help on the day of the event. The Thanksgiving meal is always the Sunday before the annual holiday, and, likewise, the Christmas feast is the Sunday before Dec. 25. It all takes place at The Salvation Army Boys and Boys Club at 630 S. Sumter St.
Some volunteers bring side dishes and help serve; others deliver hot boxed meals to seniors at various independent living and assisted-living facilities in town. On Sunday, she estimated volunteers distributed about 300 boxed meals to homes, and about 800 total meals were prepared.
Others just come to lend a hand in the afternoon with cleanup.
A group of ladies used to work with Singleton to organize the annual holiday feasts, but it has just been her in the last five years or so.
Now, in her 70s, what keeps Singleton going?
"I enjoy doing it," she said. "It just makes me feel good to know that I still can do something to help somebody during the holidays."
Singleton said she cooked 50 turkeys last week in preparation for Sunday's meal.
She said she especially appreciates the Church of the Holy Comforter in the downtown area. In recent years, the church has allowed Singleton to use its large kitchen in Parish Hall on the church grounds to cook the turkeys. The kitchen is ideal, she said, because she can cook up to 12 turkeys at a time.
On Sunday at The Salvation Army Boys and Boys Club, recipients were all smiles for the free Thanksgiving meal that went "from noon until" and described the annual event as "special."
Volunteers in attendance also sang Singleton's praises.
Randolph Black, a former small-business owner in the area who is on staff with Westend Community Church, spoke highly of Singleton's character and said the community's involvement helps make the event successful.
Vivian Franklin said she has been volunteering with the holiday project for about five years now.
"She's an asset to the community, and, I want to say, 'She's one of God's ministering angels,'" Franklin said. "Her love for people is genuine."
For Gloria Bell and her family who are relatively new to Sumter, it was the second year they have helped Singleton with the festivities.
She said from the first time she met Singleton, she knew the project was a good thing to get involved with. As some people are no longer able to help with the meal's operation, Bell said it's good that a new group of volunteers can come in.
"We look forward to doing this," Bell said. "This is something that just makes you feel good inside."
When Singleton was asked how much longer she plans to conduct the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts, she said she hopes she can eventually pass on the primary responsibility - "and I will be glad to still help" - but nobody has been willing to take it over yet.
Until then, Singleton said she will try to keep it going as long as she can.
"I thank the Lord for getting me through it each year," she said. "I can't leave Him out, really. He must be pleased with it because He's the one who keeps me going."
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