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Chestatee Elementary School hosts annual Thanksgiving meal
Chestatee

Lopsided, googly-eyed turkeys dotted the centers of Chestatee Elementary’s lunch tables, the birds’ brown, orange and yellow construction-paper feathers cut in the shape of an 11-year-old’s hand.

More paper lined the tables, serving as a tablecloth upon which plates, napkins and utensils were neatly laid out for the school’s community Thanksgiving meal.

Chestatee hosted its sixth annual holiday meal Tuesday, an event started by fifth grade teacher Craig Ahrens in 2010.

“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 said. “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.”

Though Ahrens is not originally from the area, he said in the 10 years he’s been in Forsyth County, he’s never seen such community at a school.

“There are lots of families, lots of generations; we just want them to know that when times are hard, when times are good, we’re here,” he said.

Chestatee is a Title-I school, which means it receives federal funding aimed at helping a student body with a large percentage of low-income families.

Ahrens said with more than 50 percent of students receiving free or reduced meals daily, the Thanksgiving dinner is an important event, but also one sure to bring smiles.

“This is more people than we’ve had in the past few years, so this is really good,” Ahrens said. “People are setting off boxes to the side that they’ll bring to families who couldn’t be here; we get that outreach as well.”

Laurie Faulkner, a third-through-fifth grade English as a Second Language, or ESL, teacher at the school, was one of those volunteers making plates to go.

She said she volunteers so she can help her students who are homebound during the holiday.

“A lot of the families that request the to-go meals are my families, so I help to communicate with them,” she said. “It’s just part of giving and my favorite part is going to the homes and seeing my [students.]”

First grade teacher Debra Warnecke has been serving meals for the last six years, to both current and former students.

“It’s an opportunity to give back, because they give so much to me in the classroom,” she said. “It’s that opportunity to speak with them and care for them in a way outside the classroom, and I think it’s the smiles on the faces that I really [enjoy.]

“I just love that families are willing to come in and they’re not scared to come in, because our school is so open. We have an open-door policy and you won’t necessarily find that at every school, that [Chestatee] is willing to open their doors on a day that we’re off.”

Like Warnecke, Ahrens said it’s the smiles that drive him to organize and re-organize the event yearly.

“This is really a family event,” he said as a family of four walked through the school’s front door. “It’s an event for our families — whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they’re doing — to come here and feel community and love. Getting to see smiles on faces … that’s what it’s about. It’s to see those little things and just know for an hour or two, these families don’t have to worry. They can come, get a full belly, get some food to take home, and they’re going to feel loved.

“What’s important is that we’re showing what we should be showing; we’re the light to this community.”