As aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents covered the trays full of stuffing or the platters littered in turkey with tinfoil and made their way to the site of their family’s annual Thanksgiving meal, dozens of volunteers around the county were doing similar work.
But instead of cooking for a small gathering, more than a dozen volunteers set up at the Gainesville Masonic Lodge for Project JOY — an annual community dinner — to share Thanksgiving with the hundreds who came to eat.
Project JOY (Jesus, Ours, & Yours), the brainchild of Rose and Eugene Moon, is in its third year in Gainesville.
About four years ago, the Moons’ pastor challenged them to reach out to the community. The two chose to start hosting people at their house during Thanksgiving, but quickly realized space was limited.
They enlisted the help of Troy and Heather Phillips, along with Jason and Russell Gee, members of the lodge, and three years ago Project JOY held its first community dinner.
That first year, Troy Phillips said, the group fed more than 350 people. Since then, it’s just grown.
“I think the first year we had a lot of people who were hesitant because they thought it was a soup kitchen,” said Phillips. “It’s not a soup kitchen — it’s a community dinner. Yeah, there might be homeless people in there, but there’s people in there that don’t have family. Heck, my whole family comes up here and helps. They help cook, they help clean up, they help deliver and they eat. So it’s a family dinner for us.”
That’s the idea of Project JOY: to provide a place and the food for those who want to share in the Thanksgiving festivities.
“When they walk through the door, we don’t ask why you’re here; we’re just happy you’re here,” said Phillips. “That’s what it’s called Project JOY.”
Last year the meal was held at the Salvation Army and served more than 500 people. This year the group moved it back to the lodge and within an hour of opening its doors at noon had delivered 200 meals to shut-ins and those unable to drive, along with feeding nearly 300 in-house.
“We feel like there’s a need,” said Phillips. “There’s a need in the community. You know, there are some who might not have a place to go. They may have a home and a good job, but they’re alone on the holidays. Where are they going to go? Here they can sit down — they might not know who they’re sitting with — and when they leave they might have a new friend.”
But the meal is not a Masonic event, Phillips emphasized — it’s a community event with community volunteers.
Karina Costantini recruited the help of her two sons to join in and help put Project JOY together.
“For my two sons, I think it’s important that they learn to be compassionate and kind and care for others,” she said. “There’s so many people that don’t have families to spend Thanksgiving with or they don’t have the means to have a good meal on Thanksgiving. We have the family and the means, so we want to show our appreciation.”
Her oldest son, Anthony, 15, said he was hesitant at first. But after spending time helping, said he’d be willing to do it again without a push.
“At first I had to get dragged into it,” he said. “But after I got used to it, it got better and I liked it more.
“I would volunteer for anything now.”
And the effort is appreciated by those who show up for the meal, but more importantly, the environment.
“I’m here for the food,” said Richard Dickerson, laughing, who came to Project JOY with the Salvation Army. “I don’t have family in the area. It’s probably what brings me here.
“This is great because there are people that need it. I think it’s a great idea and I wish more people would do it.”
Project JOY is just one of the dinners in the area over the holiday. The Blue Cow restaurant in Lula and Good News at Noon in Gainesville both held their dinners Thursday. The John Paul II Center will hold its dinner at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday at 177 Atlanta Highway in Gainesville.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” said Phillips. “Without the community, what are we?”