Local residents will be happy to know that the annual Community Holiday Meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas will, indeed, return to Malvern this year!
The Community Holiday Meals are two annual meal events organized by volunteers from the local area, kind-hearted souls from all around Arkansas, and even out-of-state visitors who’ve been lending a hand to the effort year after year.
The tradition began in 2005 when John Allan Funk, devoted member of First United Methodist Church, approached his church’s administrative board to suggest that they organize and serve a free Thanksgiving meal for everyone in the community who wanted to come and feast. The meals are meant to bring people closer together, in true unity and Christian fellowship.
“I have never been without,” Funk shared. “As a family, we would always have these huge gatherings, and I have never put my feet under an empty table.” He wanted others in the community to have that same loving experience.
After Funk made that initial appeal to the church in 2005, First United agreed to help him organize the first Community Holiday Meal at Thanksgiving to bring all walks of life mingling happily together under the umbrella of Christ.
After the first few Thanksgiving events, they decided to add a second holiday celebration to the mix, because heartbreaking feedback from the community highlighted the urgent need for a similar public outreach event at Christmastime.
“In about 2008 I think, we started the Christmas meal because we realized that the need was there for Christmas as well, especially at Christmas, because the kids were involved,” Funk said. The Christmas events were big, blow-out celebrations including homemade holiday food, an special appearance by Santa, and gifts for young and old, alike.
“There are so many different kinds of need. People need food, they need companionship, they need somebody to care for them, just to be part of something, and that’s why we started this back in 2005,” Funk said. “It’s just been an awesome, awesome thing.”
The annual holiday meals have fed an ever-growing crowd since that first one in 2005 and have become one of the church’s largest outreach ministries.
“We’ve got a lot of outreach ministries in the church, but these meals have been the biggest, in my opinion, and that speaks highly of a church that’s willing to open their doors. And that’s what a church is supposed to do,” Funk said.
“That’s what we’re supposed to do, and First United Methodist Church has the heart and the soul to give back to their community and help their community in any way they can,” he said. “I’m honored and blessed to be a part of that congregation.”
Sadly, the pandemic caused organizers to put the meals on pause after the Dec. 2019. Now that the swell of COVID has evened out a little, and with protective and common-sense measures in place, organizers are itching to serve their neighbors and spread Christian love throughout the community once again.
“COVID knocked two years off our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals,” Funk said, adding that he is thrilled to be helping to bring back the beloved event this year and is excited to share the wonderful news with the community.
The first upcoming event will be hosted once again at the First United Methodist Church at 127 E. Page Ave. on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 24. The event will be at its usual spot, but the scope of the project will be a bit smaller than previous affairs.
Up to 1,2000 meals were handed out between dine-in, pickup and delivery at the last few events, but Funk said they will only be doing pickup and delivery meals this year, and they expect to have enough food on hand to feed about 600 people.
Volunteers will be available to deliver some meals to homes for those who cannot make it to the church themselves that afternoon, and they’ll be contacting people who are currently served through the local Meals on Wheels program to see if they would also like a holiday meal delivered that day.
“With the specter of COVID still hanging over us to a certain degree, and the flu as well, we’ve decided to start back sort of slowly,” Funk said.
It’s easy to understand why the tasty tradition took hold, when you hear what will be on the menu. Funk said that the homemade dressing promises to be some of the best you’ve ever had. The green beans are given extra care with big slabs of cooked bacon, and the mashed potatoes are one of the highlights every year.
Local businesses and organizations will donate most of the meat and sides to the effort, and Mr. Charles Keeney himself will cook the birds fresh that Thanksgiving morning and serve them with the pre-mentioned sides, cranberry sauce, and a variety of homemade desserts, including from-scratch pumpkin and sweet potato pies baked the day before.
Funk could not stress enough how important the volunteers are to the annual effort.
“Couldn’t do it without the volunteers. Wouldn’t try to do it without the volunteers,” he said. “They love doing it, and I love for them to do it.”
One familiar face will be absent and sorely missed from this year’s events. Edna Regan passed away at age 108 on Sept. 14, just shy of her 109th birthday in November.
“She came to it every year, and she would slip me a $5 bill, just to contribute to it,” Funk said. “She showed up on Thanksgiving and Christmas every year that we had it.” Regan will be miss but fondly remembered by all those who had the pleasure of visiting with her during the community events in years past.
“She was a longtime member of this church and a big supporter of everything,” Funk shared.
Funk said that the Thanksgiving meals will be given on a first-come, first-serve basis, and since supplies will be limited, volunteers will only be able to deliver a maximum of six meals to any given address. In-person pickup will be limited to four meals per individual.
Funk said the organizers and volunteers are getting their feet wet again with the Thanksgiving meal but plan to go all-in for the Christmas event, giving many people in the community something extra-special to look forward to.
Anyone who’s interested in the meal delivery option for Thanksgiving can call 501-332-5289 Thanksgiving morning to place an order. Those who are able to travel are invited to pick up packaged meals from noon to 2 p.m. to take home and enjoy.