By Cassidy Grom | Echo
This year is the first in thirty years that cars won't roll out from the old West School with the scent of turkey, noodles and gravy clinging to the clothes of volunteer drivers.
Despite 30 years of diligent support from her community, Bucky Walker can no longer handle the physical strain of leading the Community Thanksgiving Dinner of Grant County. At its peak, the ministry served over 12,000 meals per year to underprivileged Grant County residents at Thanksgiving.
Freda Sexton, Walker's sister and ministry partner, has respiratory and heart problems, and James Sexton, a key volunteer, had a triple bypass surgery this past year. Though her eyes still twinkle with youthful energy, Walker herself is experiencing the physical exhaustion that comes with years of service.
"I'm fat, and I'm gonna be 74, and I'm getting worn out," she said. "They've tried for the last two years or so to get me to quit, and God hadn't released it."
After praying often, Walker finally felt peace about stepping down this year. On Wednesday, two community members called to order meals, unaware the ministry no longer exists. Freda Sexton estimates they have gotten about 100 similar calls in the past month.
This will leave 4,000 to 7,000 disabled or financially-stressed individuals without Thanksgiving dinners, according to Walker.
Tears of gratitude slipped down Walker's cheek as she held roses from a thankful community member. She kept repeating that it was not her ministry; it was God's-and it was only possible with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
"(I) never regretted a minute of it," Walker said. "We'd do it again if we had the health to do it."
A few individuals inquired about leading the ministry, but none stepped up. Walker and Freda Sexton donated the ministry's remaining funds to other community organizations.
The Community Thanksgiving Dinner started in 1984 when James Sexton, former pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Gas City, asked Walker if she could cook Thanksgiving meals for the less fortunate community members. Originally called Dinners from Christ, Walker's ministry was unique because meals were delivered right to the door, allowing the homebound to enjoy a hearty homemade meal. The first year, Walker and her sister, along with a handful of volunteers, served 125 meals.
Over the years, Walker's ministry grew too large for the small church kitchen. The Gas City government granted her access to West School, an unused school building where Walker used the kitchen and gymnasium to prepare homemade noodles, chicken, green beans and other Thanksgiving staples.
"The Gas City community really supported us," Freda Sexton said. "They gave us a place to be, didn't cost us nothing; no light bill, no nothing. And a storage place all year long."
Community groups and churches pitched in. Taylor University's and Indiana Wesleyan University's cafeterias volunteered to cook 200 turkeys, the Gas City fire department and Methodist Church in Van Buren collected donations, and inmates from the Grant County Jail washed dishes. As part of Community Plunge, shifts of Taylor students made noodles for the iconic chicken-and-noodle side dish. On Thanksgiving Day, volunteers from Indianapolis and Kokomo loaded up their cars and delivered meals to hundreds of locations.
Walker set up three phone lines where individuals could order their meals ahead of time-and she never declined a single request. Some individuals would ask for several meals to help feed their families for a few weeks after Thanksgiving.
One lady in a small town in Grant County annually requested 60 meals; her husband and daughter had been killed in a semi-truck accident, and her son remained immobile from the accident. Community members bought her a Seal-a-Meal vacuum sealer to preserve the food and Walker gave her the leftover chicken carcasses to boil into broth for her son.
Other families would order up to 70 meals and host a Thanksgiving party.
"The kids (from those families) would just bombard you when they found out it was you at the door," Walker said.
Walker and Sexton attribute all the ministry's success to God. They have met families who have become Christians because of the efforts of the Community Thanksgiving Dinner.
Walker estimated that food for that many meals cost $15,000 to $20,000 per year. There were several years Walker wasn't sure where the money would come from, but community members always stepped up. One Upland resident donated $5,000 several years in a row and one time, a Huntington family offered to write a blank check.
Despite no one stepping up to lead the Community Family Dinner, Walker displays no signs of bitterness. She tells all who will listen about God's faithfulness and the generosity of Grant County over the past three decades.
A local ministry, Helping Hands, will provide Thanksgiving baskets to 50 families in the Upland area. Other Grant County organizations will continue to serve some food, but Walker estimates that there will still be thousands of homebound and physically disabled individuals across Grant County without food assistance on Thursday.