HANCOCK COUNTY — When Dean Couch pulled up to the Hancock County Fairgrounds at 6:30 a.m. Christmas Eve, he was overwhelmed.
Dozens of residents in need stood in a line stretching from the exhibit hall to the parking lot, eagerly awaiting the 8 a.m. start of Thursday’s Christmas Eve charity event, organized by Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen and God’s Open Arms ministry.
Droves of volunteers showed up to assist with the event, which provided free gifts to parents in need of support and a hearty meal, complete with turkey, potatoes, green beans and all the holiday fixings.
“It’s amazing to see a community come together like this,” said Couch, president of God’s Open Arms. “To see all these people coming together and taking a break from their everyday life to celebrate together, it’s just incredibly rewarding.”
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The fairgrounds arena usually reserved for animal shows and 4-H events was converted into a gift supply yard. Thousands of gifts — donated by community members — lined tabletops stretching the length of the 120-foot space, covered in Barbie Dolls, Hot Wheels, action figures and clothes.
The event drew hundreds of families from communities both near and far.
Shelby Jones of Richmond woke up at 6 a.m. to make the hour-long drive with several other parishioners from Gateway Vineyard Church.
Jones found her family in need this year but also wanted to serve others. She volunteered for the first several hours of the event, then sifted through bins in the gift section to pick out some presents for her 3-year-old grandson.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity,” Jones said. “Everyone’s been so welcoming; it’s a blessing to be able to receive as well as to give.”
The chance to give and receive is part of what makes the event so special, said Jill Ebbert, executive director of the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen.
“The holidays can be a stressful time of year,” Ebbert said. “Not everyone can afford to take time off from work, and not everyone can get gifts for their kids. This is just a little something to help them out.”
The volunteers stayed busy through the duration of the five-hour event, whether they were manning a gift station or serving food.
Stacey Butterfield of Greenfield said she volunteered to pitch in for her community.
“I just wanted to do whatever I could to help,” Butterfield said. “It’s great to get together and chip in what I can.”
But the volunteers get just as much out of it as those receiving the gifts, Ebbert said.
“There’s just nothing better than helping people out,” she said. “We’re all put on this earth to work together, and this is a beautiful way of seeing that in action.”
Now in its third year, the event has almost doubled in size since the original event, which was held at the soup kitchen in downtown Greenfield.
But organizers learned quickly after the first event they needed a larger space, prompting the move to the fairgrounds. The first event drew 1,400 people; the next brought in about 1,600; and Ebbert said she was shooting for 2,000 this year and believed they were nearly the number by midday.
“Who knows?” Couch said. “We might outgrow this space before long, too.”