One of Abilene’s largest holiday events, H-E-B’s Feast of Sharing serves up warm food, holiday spirit and community togetherness.
By Wendy Kilmer
Ham, green beans, rolls and pie? Coming right up. Holiday music? Done. Festive décor? Got it. A group of happy guests, chatting and eating? Check, times 1,000.
Yes, Abilene’s Feast of Sharing has all the elements of a family holiday meal – just multiplied by the thousands. Instead of half a dozen friends and family, this free community event gathers and feeds more than 6,000 Abilenians each holiday season.
“It’s just all the things that you hope the holidays to be,” said Mary Cooksey, director of the United Way 2-1-1 program and Feast of Sharing volunteer coordinator.
For the past 11 years, the community has been turning out in droves to the Abilene Civic Center for the free event, put on by H-E-B and an enthusiastic group of 400-plus volunteers.
Over a four-hour window each holiday season, Feast of Sharing guests find a freshly-prepared hot meal, live music and entertainment, visits from Santa, children’s activities, costumed characters, and a chance to connect with others in the community with no strings attached.
“We started the Abilene dinner 11 years ago as a way a way of celebrating the holidays with the community of Abilene,” said Danny Flores, public affairs representative for H-E-B. “Working with our store partners in Abilene, we found the Feast of Sharing dinner to be a great way of saying thank you to the community and to try and address the issues of hunger within our communities.”
H-E-B initiated the first Feast of Sharing events more than 25 years ago, in Corpus Christi and Laredo, and over the years has expanded to include 23 cities in Texas and Mexico. Abilene joined the caravan in 2005.
A mobile kitchen owned by H-E-B with capacity to produce about 6,200 plates per hour travels to the various cities throughout the holiday season, along with a crew made up of H-E-B retirees who cook and prepare the meals and a few of H-E-B public affairs employees. The mobile kitchen is also used to support communities with hot meals in times of disasters when fires, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes have caused damage to areas.
Locally, the event is headed by H-E-B regional manager David McKenzie, plus a planning committee including Cooksey and other representatives from various civic, industry and non-profit organizations. H-E-B partners with local groups including City of Abilene, Cumulus Radio, First Abilene Federal Credit Union, Food Bank of West Central Texas, RSVP, Meals on Wheels, and United Way of Abilene, 2-1-1 Texas A Call for Help.
Some groups and individuals have been involved from the beginning, thanks to direct “persuasion” from friends.
“David McKenzie called me and said ‘I’ve got this deal I’m working on, and you’re going to help with it,’” recalls Kelly Jay, program director at Cumulus Media. Jay has helped plan the entertainment portion of the event ever since, recruiting and coordinating musicians and performers at each event.
Others anxiously await the opening of online volunteer sign-ups each October.
“When we open the portal for people to register to volunteer, it’s a mad dash of people trying to get in,” Cooksey said. “We close registration once we have enough, so we can make their volunteer time as meaningful as possible.”
What first took more than 600 volunteers has now become more efficient and streamlined and requires only about 450. That’s due in part to Cooksey joining the planning team.
In order to get Abilene on the route for this HEB event, a group of community leaders needed to be assembled and Cooksey was asked to help with the volunteer organizing.
“I became involved to help with volunteers because of United Way’s ongoing volunteer coordination role in the community,” Cooksey said. “We really value volunteers and want to make sure their experience is ship shape and that everything goes smoothly and people will come back again.”
Abilene’s organization of volunteers and planning processes have been so successful, H-E-B has encouraged other cities to emulate some of Abilene’s procedures, McKenzie says.
“Every city is unique with the Feast of Sharing dinners,” Flores said. “Abilene has a way of making everyone feel welcomed once a guest walks through the doors. Every year we have so many volunteers and entertainers that give up their time to be able to put smiles on faces to all that attend, and that’s what it’s all about – giving back to those who may be going through a rough time at the moment, to come together as a community so that we may reflect and be thankful.”
Mark Young at Boys and Girls Club of Abilene initially became involved when Cooksey asked him to take on the cotton candy making in the kids area. Now, Young coordinates all the all the non-profit booths, in both the adult and children’s areas, assigning booth space and helping configure the room appropriately.
“It is one of my favorite Abilene events,” Young said. “It brings a wonderful reminder that community is more than my neighborhood or workplace. Community is made up from folks living in every quadrant of our city, doing diverse work, working together to make Abilene a great city.”
Robbie Burleson with Abilene’s Meals on Wheels directs the lead volunteers at the event.
“The first time I attended the event, I was amazed at how HEB and the community came together to have an nice meal and a very entertaining evening,” Burleson said. “You might sit at the table next to someone who hasn’t had a nice hot meal in a while, or parents with children anxious to talk to Santa. To me, the event shows what caring people can do when they put their love into action.”