Christy Sessoms has seen the helping hand that the county’s first responders — from law enforcement officers to fire and rescue personnel — provide time and again to those in crisis, and she wanted to turn the tables, patting them on the back in some special way for their tireless and unselfish efforts.
Her determination to help grew after a police officer was killed in Texas while pumping gas. “It just broke my heart and it got me thinking of all they do and the little thanks they get … how they put their lives on the line for us and often get little in return,” Sessoms said during a recent interview.
“I just kept thinking about that officer and the job he does, and then I started thinking about what would happen to us, as a county, if we didn’t have law enforcement officers, 911, rescue, anyone there to respond in our time of crisis.”
As if all those thoughts spinning in her head weren’t enough, Sessoms began to worry about whether those first responders felt appreciated for all the times they answer those emergency calls. “I was overwhelmed at the thought that these men and women might not feel nearly as appreciated as they should, and I felt like we, as a community, ought to do something to say thank you in a big and very public way. It couldn’t repay them for what they do, but it could sure be something that let them know people in Sampson County care and applaud them for their selflessness.”
From those thoughts has come Helping Hands of Sampson County, a mammoth project that Sessoms and 58 other community members have taken on as a way to give back to those, she pointed out time again, “who give so much to us.”
The project will culminate on March 5 at the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center when the 58-member committee, with help from volunteers within the community, will provide a meal and entertainment for the over 500 first responders and their families.
Sessoms laughs at the notion that the project is a massive undertaking. “Of course it’s massive, but if you are going to do something, I believe you have to do it up right. If you want to offer appreciation, a thank you, then you have to do it in a way that people know you truly mean it. A meal and some entertainment is a good way to offer those things, that and true fellowship.”
From the start, Sessoms, a well-known Sampson hairstylist, knew her vision of an appreciation meal was a dream far bigger than what one woman could accomplish, so she enlisted the help of some of her friends, and then their friends and on and on until a group of 58 pe0ple came together. “I started talking back and forth with my clients until I was able to secure in my mind what to do, and then things started to evolve. From that, the committee was formed.”
That group has met several times over the past few months to organize their thoughts and map out plans that continue to blossom, plans that now will take the help of hundreds of others to accomplish the overall task as the March 5 date comes into view.
“I’m enlisting the help of all our churches, the community, the Boy and Girl scouts, everyone who is willing to lend a helping hand. Look, everyone has a need for our first responders at one time or another. By asking them to help, it gives others a chance to say thank you as well.”
Sessoms and her group have sought — and received — the help of elementary school children from the city and county schools, as well as Harrells and Mintz Christian schools, all who are making placemats for the tables, using their hand prints as the focal point, another way to emphasize the Helping Hands of Sampson theme. Notes have even gone home with children both explaining the project and seeking contributions to the endeavor.
Food will be prepared by Keith Naylor at the Oasis and entertainment will be provided, Sessoms said, by school chorus members
“In all, we are going to need between $40,000 and $45,000 to make this happen. We are expecting to feed around 3,000 people and provide them entertainment,” Sessoms said. “Some people may think that is a daunting amount to raise, but I have no doubt we will get what we need and probably more.”
The project has taken on a life of its own, with Sessoms leading the charge, planning a special and completely “non-political” event that will include the meal, the lighting of candles, the playing of Taps and an offering of prayers. A banner is expected to go up in downtown Clinton touting the event, and a meeting with all the area churches is being planned for Jan. 30 to organize the making of desserts for the event and the pulling together of a virtual volunteer army to do whatever is necessary to ensure the day is special for all those being celebrated.
“We are meeting at Graves Presbyterian at 10 a.m. on Jan. 30, and we are asking for two representatives from each church in the county to come to that meeting. We need to get our plans in order. We need people to make cakes, volunteers to slice them and wrap them, and many other things; we just need a lot of hands to help us.”
In addition to the volunteer help, Sessoms stressed that every church will be asked to pray for a first responder for an entire year, perhaps, she said, the greatest way of saying thanks. “I’ve sent letters out asking for the badge numbers of the officers, the firefighters, the rescue workers, all of them, and we are going to give each church a person to pray for. It’s a coming together of people in a very special way.”
For Sessoms and those she has enlisted to help, this has become a calling all its own and one she intends to see through to the very end.
“This has been blessed from the start. We haven’t had the first problem; we haven’t had the first person to say no. Everyone I talked to has been thrilled to be a part of this because they want to show their appreciation to these men and women. I’ve had people say to me ‘Chris, I wish I had thought of doing something like this.’ I just tell them this isn’t Chris Sessoms; God gave this to me.”
Even as Sessoms and her group continue to plan, first responders across the county are amazed that people want to reach out in such a special way.
Sampson EMS director Ronald Bass said he and his crew of nearly 100 were overwhelmed by the gesture.
“It’s hard to put into words what this means,” Bass attested. “It is humbling to know that there are people out there thinking about our first responders and wanting to do something like this. It really is a huge undertaking, but I can assure you it is very much appreciated.”
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton echoed those remarks, noting that while his law enforcement team is often shown gratitude from an appreciative community, the Helping Hands project has taken them all by surprise.
“It is a wow kind of thing,” Thornton noted. “I think, without question, their willingness to do something this selfless, this big says a lot about how much people appreciate the job all our first-responders do. I, for one, am very appreciative of their efforts, and grateful they want to show all these folks how much they care.”
Just the thought, Bass said, is deeply appreciated.
“My group is thrilled to know that there are people out there who think this much of them, people willing to go the extra mile to show how much they care and are grateful for the jobs they do. First responders don’t do what they do for the thank yous, but it sure makes them feel good to know people appreciate them.”
Thornton called the gesture a significant “morale booster” for a group of men and women who put their lives on the line every day for others.
“It’s a real shot in the arm, that’s for sure. I am grateful that the community is willing to do something this special.”
For Sessoms’ part, it is the least she could do.
“I hope everyone walks away feeling as appreciated as they are. I want these first responders to feel special, because they are.”
And Sessoms hopes the seed planted in Sampson will spread throughout the state, making this the first of many rather than a one and done project. “We feel like this is a great thing to do for a really great group of people; we want it to be a start to something special, something that spreads like wildfire. We’ve already had interest from another county. We hope that’s the first of many who show an interest. It only takes a spark, they say. I sure hope this is the spark.”
To find out more about about the project like/follow the Helping Hands of Sampson County Facebook Page and watch the Sampson Independent for more details as plans continue to unfold.
Reach publisher and editor Sherry Matthews at 910-249-4612. Follow her on Twitter @sieditor1960; follow the paper @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.