An idea from 1996 now feeds 1,200 on Thanksgiving

Photos and story
by Tony Warner

In 2005, John Allan Funk of Malvern saw his dream to feed an entire community on Thanksgiving Day begin. Now, with Thanksgiving approaching, Funk is busy planning the 11th Annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner in Malvern. The event will likely provide a meal for more than 1,200 people. It’s hosted and sponsored by Malvern’s First United Methodist Church, where Funk is a member, and is clearly the largest annual outreach mission of the church.

“I had had this on my mind since 1996 that wouldn’t it be nice if our church could sponsor and hold a Thanksgiving meal and invite people in the community who might not be able to have a traditional Thanksgiving meal,” Funk said.

About five weeks prior to Thanksgiving in 2005, Funk “felt strongly compelled to get it done” and he took his idea to the Rev. Jan Edwards, the church’s pastor then and a few other church leaders. “They said, ‘That’s great! Let’s take it before the Church Council and get their blessing and then you’re on your own,’” Funk said.

Scary words for a lone person now less than five weeks away from Thanksgiving and planning to feed an unknown number. “Quickly I formed a small committee of three people! Arbitrarily, we decided to plan to feed 500 folks, not knowing how many would show up,” he said.

In planning a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and all the trimmings prepared from scratch, the small group had to hurriedly gather supplies and food.

“We had to plead for volunteers, for cash donations from the church and community and for church members to help us with the desserts.”

In addition to people being served meals at the church, the group knew they’d also have to prepare take-out orders for homebound individuals.

Through the local Meals-on-Wheels program, a list was obtained for meal deliveries.

“Getting volunteers was the biggest concern because the three of us couldn’t feed 500! So we just blindly asked for volunteers,” Funk said. “And when Thanksgiving Day arrived, I was amazed and shocked. We had over 75 people show up early that morning who gave their entire day as volunteers.” During the three-hour meal, the helpers served 350 people that first year.

Since then, the number of people fed has grown considerably as well as the number of volunteers. Last year, more than 1,200 meals were served either eat-in or carryout and more than 170 volunteers helped.

Donations have increased, too. More than 350 pounds of turkey are donated by Acme Brick. The turkeys are prepared by a local market. The cornbread dressing is still made by hand at the senior adult center while Western Sizzlin’ of Malvern donates the use of its ovens to bake and then transport the dressing to the church. Encore Health & Rehabilitation donates vegetables, and individuals in the community donate desserts.

Numerous churches donate money and volunteers. “It is a true community-wide event bringing people together, and that’s what we set out to accomplish. It’s just one of the neatest things in which I’ve ever been involved,” Funk said. “It fills a different need in every attendee and every volunteer.”

What does Funk feel when he looks over the crowds being served? “It’s just very hard to describe. This is the way it should be — fellowship. I’m so grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity and so grateful that everyone has responded as positively as they have.” Funk said. “I grew up with my feet under tables full of food. I was never hungry a day in my life and that’s how I thought it was everywhere in Malvern. I didn’t realize there were people not as fortunate as I.”

To build on his community service, about eight years ago Funk undertook a similar event, a Christmas Day dinner at the church, serving another 1,200 people. “It’s not work. It’s heartwarming. What it’s all about is fellowship among everyone,” he said.

By profession, Funk is a licensed mortician and funeral home owner in Malvern. But the Malvern native also devotes time to help feed hungry children in Hot Spring Country by soliciting funds for the School Backpack Program/Harvest of Hope. According to John Allan Funk, “It’s just the right thing to do.”