GREENFIELD — It’s a little unusual, the hustle and bustle this week at the county fairgrounds, the hush of winter interrupted by the comings and goings of volunteers with a lengthy to-do list.
At this time of year, events at the venue best known for hosting the county 4-H fair are few. But as Christmas neared this week, the place grew busy, with volunteers transforming the empty buildings into a dining room for a Christmas Eve dinner, a small toy store for families in need and a workshop, where Santa’s helpers will find just the right toy for every child who sits on his lap come Saturday.
Every year, dozens of volunteers spend Christmas Eve morning making the holiday merrier for their neighbors at the Day of Love and Caring; but for Jill Ebbert, Peggy and Dean Couch and Ty Hunt, the labor of love begins earlier.
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They spend months collecting donations, sorting toys, spreading the word and planning the perfect holiday meal for those less fortunate. And on Christmas Eve, they watch as hundreds enjoy a warm meal, Christmas presents they otherwise couldn’t afford and fellowship.
They look over the scene and exchange knowing glances: this is worthwhile work.
Giving the glory
Jill Ebbert, executive director of the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, remembers that first Christmas Eve. The Tennessee-based Carpenters House Global Ministry had an idea. It would work in Hancock County, organizers were sure; but they needed Ebbert’s help.
They expected 900 people to show up to the soup kitchen should they open the doors Christmas Eve and offer free gifts to those who needed them. Ebbert scoffed a bit. There was no way that many would come out. Not on Christmas Eve. Not in Hancock County.
But come that morning, the line of eager families stretched down Main Street. More than 1,400 people visited the soup kitchen that year for a hot meal or to pick out presents for their kids.
Three years later, she still tears up remembering one little boy she met that day. After years of asking for a new bicycle to no avail, he’d given up on Santa. As he rolled his new set of wheels out of the soup kitchen, a gift made possible through community donations, he told her it wasn’t Santa who was behind the gift; it was Jesus.
Christmas is a busy time of year for Ebbert; as temperatures drop, traffic at the soup kitchen picks up. Add planning the Day of Love and Caring, and she doesn’t have much free time in the weeks surrounding the holidays.
But she counts herself blessed she spends every day providing for people who need help. And her faith keeps her going when the days grow long.
“We give all glory to God,” she said. “We could not do what we do without him.”
‘Measure the joy’
Peggy and Dean Couch’s family business looks less like an auto repair shop and more like a food pantry and storage unit this time of year. In nearly every room, donations of food, clothes and toys pile up. And in the weeks before Christmas, community members stop by just to drop off toys for the kiddos.
The Couches, founding members of God’s Open Arms ministry — which collects and donates food, clothing and household items to families in need, also help organize the annual Day of Love and Caring. They gather new and gently used toys and round up sorely needed clothing, such as winter coats and hats. If the toys need minor repairs — the bikes can always use a tune-up — they get right to work.
This week, while simultaneously running their business, they transported hundreds of toys and dozens of bikes to the fairgrounds, where they were sorted and organized for families in need to pick through.
The week leading up the Christmas is long, and it’s definitely hectic. Peggy Couch was at the fairgrounds for close to 12 hours Thursday and most of the day Friday preparing for the event.
But they know on Saturday, as they watch Santa pass out gifts to deserving youngsters and families enjoy a home-cooked meal, their hearts will be filled with joy, as they are each Christmas Eve.
“You can’t measure the joy in your heart,” she said. “There’s no greater joy on earth than giving.”
Ty Hunt knows he’ll be exhausted by the end of it all. His day will begin before 6 a.m. Christmas Eve to prepare the holiday dinner for 600 people.
But by Christmas Day, he’ll be rejuvenated, his spirits higher.
Two days a year, he gives back to his community by making holiday meals for those in need. He’s the chef behind the annual Feast of Plenty held on Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Love and Caring.
A former chef of 23 years, he says it’s his way to use the talent God gave him.
The Day of Love and Caring is a two-day event for Hunt, who prepared the turkey and pork for the meal on Friday.
On Christmas Eve morning, he wakes early to finish the menu: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, rolls and stuffing.
It’s always a chaotic few days — there are pots to be stirred, tables to clear and dishes to wash. But the hardest part is coordinating all the volunteers — so many people want to help, Hunt said.
But it’s all worth it when he sees neighbors come together for a joyful meal. There’s no bickering, no divisive talk of politics — just fellowship and an air of gratefulness.
“It’s the one day a year I think people understand what it means to give and love freely,” he said.
The fourth annual Day of Love and Caring begins at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds, 620 N. Apple St. and is open to all.
From 8 to 10 a.m., parents and caregivers are invited to the fairgrounds for free Christmas shopping for their children. Toys and clothing will be available for children of all ages.
From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., lunch will be served, and children are invited to visit Santa, Mrs. Claus and the Three Wise Men.
The event is sponsored by the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen and God’s Open Arms ministry.