Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Turkey and all of the trimmings may be the focal point of a free Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Battle Creek Pride, but the emphasis is really on those who will gather together for that meal, says Chris Fulbright, Coordinator and Executive Chef for the feast.
The dinner will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving, at Christ United Methodist Church — and as in years past it is open to anyone in the Battle Creek area.
“It hurts me thinking about people who have no place to go because I’ve always had a place to go for the holidays. My in-laws are very open and accepting and my mom and my and my family have always been very open and accepting,” Fulbright says. “Just to think about someone not having a place to go at holidays or Thanksgiving, I get sad.”
He says this is why eight years ago he began volunteering for the dinner which began in 2012.
“This is a big part of who I am. Making people happy, whether it be the LGBTQIA+ community or families who just need a place to go, it makes me happy to see them enjoying this time together. “
In addition to the meal, Santa will make an appearance and all those who attend will have the opportunity to have a photo taken with him that will be printed on-site free of charge, says Pam McCoy, Event Coordinator for the dinner. She says there also will be a craft corner for children to make a gift for a parent or guardian as well as a Storytime for them.
Representatives from S.A.F.E. Place
and a local suicide prevention organization will be on hand to offer people resources and information because McCoy says, “This is a hard time for some people.”
“The holidays are difficult enough sometimes and you don’t need to add additional pressure to it,” says Deana Spencer, Co-President of BC Pride.
Although the instances of those who identify as LGTQIA+ not being welcome at family gatherings aren’t as prevalent as it once was, she says that she didn’t attend family functions for many years as a result of the way her relatives reacted to her as a Queer individual.
“I don’t know if they thought of me as one of ‘those people.’ I was lucky enough that I did have a surrogate family, but not everybody’s got that so we become that for each other,” Spencer says.
The idea for the yearly gathering took root while Spencer and her partner, Mitzi Harrison, were sitting together one-night watching television. Harrison passed away in 2015.
The dinner was originally held at the former Partners Bar on North Avenue owned by Rick Rogers and for the first three years it was more of a potluck, says Deana Spencer, Co-President of BC Pride. She would secure small donations of gift cards from stores in the area including Family Fare and Meijer to buy what she could based on the card amounts and solicit people to cook the turkeys, hams, and side dishes.
“We would farm the food prep out to different folks. Rick would open the bar and provide water and soda at no cost and if people wanted to buy an alcoholic drink, they could. We tried not to encourage the alcohol too much because some people brought little kids with them,” she says. “That’s how it started. We had 45 that first year.
“This is an event where people can feel safe and comfortable. We can offer that. They can come and have a good time and there’s no stigma or shame.”
Each year the number of people attending has increased. Last year more than 100 meals were served and this year Fulbright says he expects to feed close to 150. He will cook anywhere between four and five turkeys and an equal number of hams and will work with a small group of volunteers who will peel and prep vegetables.
“I’ll send them home and spend the rest of the day cooking things,” he says.
In years past, Fulbright did the majority of the work, McCoy says the increase in the number of guests prompted the formation of a committee to share the workload which will include volunteers who will deliver meals to those who aren’t able to get to the church for any number of reasons. While Fulbright recruits the kitchen volunteers, she recruits volunteers to do other jobs.
“We have one minor stumbling block with moving it this year to a new location,” she says. “We serve a lot of homeless people and people who live in shelters downtown. We’re trying to figure out outreach to people who can’t get to the dinner. We have carryout containers that we can load up and pass out at the BC Pride Resource Center. This community really needs the help and they feel like they’re part of something regardless of if they’re living in a shelter or a center.”
When the dinner first began, it was geared towards the LGBTQIA+ community. Fulbright says it has become an opportunity for the LGBTQIA+ community to give back to the community as a whole.
“It’s us coming together as one big community,” he says. “There are a lot of free Thanksgiving dinners that happen throughout Calhoun County and this one is a family-friendly, fun event and it’s completely free to the public. We just want people to come in and enjoy their food and each other's company.”
Individuals interested in volunteering, making a monetary donation, or donating perishable or non-perishable food donations for the dinner may contact Pam McCoy at (517) 414-0293.