There was a plan.
There was a plan.
The plan needed the right man.
That man in turn needed a community.
And that community, well, it has now nearly made it a grand.
Some 18 years ago the framework of an effort took shape to provide a warm meal and holiday warmth to those who might not have either on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
During that first Christmas, a group of volunteers, largely led by Jimmy and Bunnie Gainnie as well as Willie Ramsey, served meals to 40-some people at the Gulf County Senior Citizens Center in Port St. Joe.
Last year, a much larger army of volunteers helped delivered nearly 900 meals to folks around Gulf County, on both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“It has grown tremendously,” said Billy Dixson in what might stand as one of the understatements of the year. “Last year was the most rewarding time of my life.”
Ramsey and Gainnie first sat down to discuss the concept of the program in 1998. They crafted a plan, much-needed in those days after the paper mill had permanently closed, when a community that ran by a mill whistle heard that whistle no more.
It was a plan to enlist a squadron of volunteers to reach out to those who did not know nor understand the concept of holiday as well as those for whom the holiday stands as a tortured reminder of loneliness and need.
“We thought this is a great plan, it can all work and we can touch many people’s lives,” Ramsey said last week during a celebratory lunch to honor key volunteers.
“The problem we had was who can we find to put in place to be the spark plug?”
Enter Jerry Stokoe.
Stokoe became, as Ramsey characterized it, “the glue and passion” to the program, performing the enlistment of volunteers, the lining up of food, identifying the families, the households of need; whatever it took.
“He’s the one that keeps all of us running,” Bunnie Gainnie said.
And they keep running.
Like clockwork, the call goes out around this time of year and it is answered by a phalanx of people who show up to cook, to slice, to spoon, to assemble and to drive.
The hustling efficiency of Christmas and Thanksgiving mornings at Oak Grove Church is wondrous enough to wake Henry Ford from his eternal sleep for a standing ovation.
It is a process that not only touches the recipients of those meals, but those that make sure they get those meals to doorsteps.
One of the volunteers honored last week, Bob Sutton of Wewahitchka, said his entire outlook on the holidays had been irrevocably shifted by his involvement in the program.
“You truly brought the idea of holiday back in my heart,” said Sutton.
Also honored with plaques last week were mainstays Dixson and the Gainnies.
What Sutton does on the north end of the county Dixson does throughout the south end each Thanksgiving or Christmas morning: delivering meals to the needy.
It is a calling, Dixson said, and one he felt embraced by so many others, inside the room and out.
The Gainnies responded the way they always do, with deflection. There are others more worthy, more due the praise, they are more or less instruments and the bounty was a given.
“Whenever your heart is in it and the Lord is in it, you will have an increase,” Jimmy Gainnie said.