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Youth Board reflects on community dinner, starts planning next year's event

December 14, 2016

Just weeks after serving 1,704 dinners to area residents on Thanksgiving Eve, the Harvest Youth Board is looking at how it can make next year’s dinner even bigger and better.

The board members met Saturday to discuss what worked well at their first Thanksgiving Eve dinner Nov. 23 at Martinsville High School and what could be improved.

“You guys should be nothing but proud” of the dinner, said DeWitt House, senior program officer for The Harvest Foundation and an adviser to the Youth Board. The event, which included delivered meals as well as ones served at the school, all without charge to the public, has given the board “a road map” for future dinners as well as ideas to improve the experience, he added.

The success of the event was evident as the Youth Board members listed 38 “pros” of the event but only 33 possible improvements.

The “pros” ranged from the number — 1,704 — of dinners served to the fact that there was enough turkey, ham, dressing, green beans and more to go around. Board members especially praised Coulson’s Call Service for providing the phone service for the public to reserve dinners; the cooks; the many volunteers; and the efficiency of providing and delivering the meals.

None of it would have been possible without the help of Scott Norman, who organizes the annual Richard’s Dinner community Christmas meal, according to Max Pinkston, chairperson of the Youth Board. Board members volunteered with Richard’s Dinner last year to learn the ropes of staging such a meal, and Norman advised the group and cooked for it this year.

As a result, the Youth Board voted unanimously Saturday to donate $500 to Richard’s Dinner, as well as contribute paper products, uncooked food and other items that were left over from the Thanksgiving Eve dinner. The Youth Board also plans to buy a meat slicer and serving line pans and if it does so before the Christmas dinner, they will be loaned to that event.

Pinkston and board member Mariah Holland encouraged others to volunteer with Richard’s Dinner again this year.

“It was probably the best experience I ever had,” Holland said of the volunteer hours she worked on Dec. 23, 24 and 25 last year. “I left with a really good feeling.”

The same was true for the scores of youth and other volunteers at the Thanksgiving Eve dinner, House said.

“Your peers came for service hours (for school organizations) but they left with a sense of service and sense of pride,” he added.

As successful as the Thanksgiving Eve dinner was, there is room for improvement, board members agreed. They cited such issues as the fact that two doors were open to the high school, which created some confusion for the public, and that the board could not use the school cafeteria, so food was cooked at area churches and transported to MHS and carried across the cafeteria to the service lines.

“You guys should be nothing but proud.
- DeWitt House, Youth Board Adviser

House said that will not be a problem next year since the board has gotten approval to use the school cafeteria.

Other adjustments need to be made in scheduling volunteers, since some had idle hours because the setup for the meal took less time than expected; adding another greeter; adding a deadline to reserve orders and publicizing it; and better coordination of delivery drivers, board members said.

More drivers are needed, they said, and deliveries need to be coordinated so one driver will deliver several meals in a particular area, rather than having multiple drivers going to the same area. Also, two churches offered the use of large vans for deliveries, and Youth Board adviser Gracie Agnew said next year organizers can plan on that assistance.

The board members want to make the experience more like a restaurant for those dining at the high school, they said. Next year, they will post a sign asking people to wait to be served, and they will attempt to interact more with those people as they eat. Dining in will be encouraged, they said.

Having the event be similar to a restaurant rather than a soup kitchen was a goal from the start, according to Paulina Vazquez, a former chairperson of the Youth Board and one of five former board members who returned to help at the dinner. Vazquez added that she did not get any complaints about the dinner.

While 1,704 meals were served, there is no headcount for how many people were fed, according to House. The event was open to the public and free for all, with no screening for need of diners.

“If someone gets a meal who doesn’t really need it, we give it and say ‘God bless you.’ Scott (Norman) taught that you don’t get into who gets a meal and who doesn’t. … As long as you’re not going to run out of food, you’re okay,” House said.

House addressed several of the concerns raised by the Youth Board members. For instance, he said next year volunteers will park in an upper lot at the school so delivery drivers and dine-in patrons can park near the door; ordering and storing items such as paper products will be improved because the board now knows how much it will need; cookies will be purchased and put in each meal since this year, additional desserts were purchased the day of the dinner when a shortage became apparent; and Youth Board members will rotate their jobs on the day of the dinner so they experience more aspects of the event.

Also, orders should be taken earlier, starting in October next year, and logged onto a spreadsheet daily, House said.

The Youth Board budgeted $12,000 for the dinner, and exceeded that by $500. However, House pointed out that $2,100 of that went to buy T-shirts for volunteers for this year and the next two years. When that cost is subtracted the dinner came in under budget, “so you’re good with that,” he added.

House said the board should put its assessment of the dinner in a “playbook” that will be updated every year.

“Every board that comes after you will know exactly how to make this a success. You’ve got the road map started,” he added.

The Youth Board is entirely student-run and focuses on youth-related issues in the area. It can award grants, create initiatives or develop projects related to youth issues. Board members also serve in an advisory capacity to the full Harvest Foundation Board of Directors on youth and community issues.

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