As ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ played on a screen in Chestatee Elementary School’s cafeteria, families gathered around fold-up tables lined with brown, orange, yellow and black construction paper.
Coloring book printouts served as a tablecloth upon which plates, napkins and utensils were neatly laid out for the school’s seventh annual community Thanksgiving meal Tuesday afternoon.
The event, which was started in 2010 by then-fifth grade teacher Craig Ahrens, brought dozens of north Forsyth residents to the school, where they feasted on heaping plates of turkey, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.
“I had done it at a school where I previously worked over in Gainesville City and I went to my boss and said here’s the idea and she said, ‘let’s do it,’” Ahrens previously told the Forsyth County News. “We serve a different population than a lot of the schools in the county and we want our families to feel loved and to feel [that] from the inside out; I mean that’s really what Chestatee’s about.”
Ahrens, who retired from the role of event coordinator this year – he now serves as an administrative assistant at Coal Mountain Elementary – passed the tradition onto Brianna Hundt, a third-grade teacher at Chestatee, who said the community response was overwhelmingly positive.
“When [Ahrens] moved on, we decided we wanted to keep the tradition alive in our school,” Hundt said. “Everything has been donated by our staff, it’s been donated by parents – some of our families have offered things all day – and it’s just nice to be able to serve our parents and students outside of the normal 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day and let them know we’re here, as a partner in education and a support system.”
That support system was evident in the range of ages of both attendees and volunteers, from infants to the elderly, who laughed as they doled out, or ate, the food.
Chestatee, which is a Title-I school, meaning it receives federal funding aimed at helping a student body with a large percentage of low-income families, has more than 50 percent of its students receiving free or reduced meals daily.
In part, for this reason, the Thanksgiving dinner is an important event, though it’s also an important community event.
“We’re here because we really wanted to be a part of our community and help out,” said Little Mill Middle School student Emily Fitzpatrick, one of the volunteers.
“Seeing how happy everyone is and how much they get to eat makes you feel good,” added her fellow student, Lauren Pekari.
In addition to serving the hot meal, volunteers packed and delivered meal boxes to 10 families throughout north Forsyth who could not attend.
Hundt said any leftovers – this year, the school had 22 turkeys donated – will be given to Abba House or the fire stations.
“We’ve gotten probably more than 30 donated dishes,” she said. “A lot of it is homemade so it’s food people have put special touches on. It’s an amazing way that the community comes together to support everybody and it’s a tradition. Serving the families and having them be able to come in and provide them with a meal that they get to sit around and enjoy is [great.] Sometimes, school can be so academic and rigorous that it’s a nice time to just be people with each other.”