See related editorial on A4
Months in the making, Helping Hands of Sampson County’s massive efforts came to fruition this past weekend, as hundreds upon hundreds of first responders and their families were fed and entertained over the course of a single celebratory Saturday paying tribute to their dedication.
The Helping Hands group, more than 60-strong, provided a catered meal and live entertainment, putting on three separate events at the Sampson Agri-Exposition Center — at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. — during which Sampson’s first responders were able to receive a tangible “thank you” for their service.
Sandpiper owner Keith Naylor said nearly 400 pounds of barbecue, 1,200 pounds of chicken, 600 pounds of mac and cheese, thousands of hush puppies and 50 gallons each of slaw and potato salad were to be served, with reserves if needed. Helping Hands also hoped for 250 cakes to be donated for dessert for its first responders.
It received nearly double, approximately 480, thanks to a tremendous outpouring from the community. Organizers said the event was a success, and many credited Chris Sessoms with her vision.
Last year, after hearing of an officer shot at a gas pump in Texas, Sessoms thought about first responders in Sampson and hoped they felt appreciated for all the times they answer the call of duty. She wanted to do something to make sure they knew she and others were thankful.
“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,” Sessoms said. “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.”
Helping Hands of Sampson, she noted, was a way to give back to those “who give so much to us.”
At Saturday’s event, Dr. John McPhail and J.W. Simmons praised Sessoms for spearheading the event and talked about the amazing dedication of law enforcement, notably Sampson’s finest. What they do does not go unnoticed, evidenced by the massive undertaking by the community.
“This event was touched by one person in particular — Chris Sessoms,” Simmons said.
McPhail said the idea born from Sessoms was shared with her clientele at Chris & Co. Salon and quickly spread through the community. McPhail said Saturday’s event was the culmination of “62 hard-working, caring individuals who have been working at this for six months.”
“No one needed much urging,” McPhail stated. “It started from that salon and really snowballed into a true community effort. The churches became involved. All the schools became involved.”
Sheila Peterson, principal at Roseboro-Salemburg Middle School and a member of Helping Hands, said nearly every school in the county pitched in to decorate the event, including her own. Whether it was placemats or pieces of art — sculpted hands, and colorful and intricately-designed cardboard ambulances, police cars and patrol vehicles — that filled the stage, tables and a donor wall just inside the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center.
“A lot of schools, in some shape or form, participated in this program,” Peterson attested.
Naylor, who is on the Herring Volunteer Fire Department with son Blake, was commissioned to provide food from Sandpiper. However, the nearly 500 cakes received for the event were all donated.
“The meal was catered, but every one of the desserts was donated by the community,” McPhail noted. “Numerous donors showed their dedication and over $41,000 was raised.”
The massive undertaking involved numerous schools, businesses and organizations. In addition to Clinton City and Sampson County students, as well as those from Harrells and Mintz Christian academies, making placemats and other decorations, children also provided the bulk of the entertainment.
Boy Scouts Troop #27 opened each meal with the Pledge of Allegiance and Phyllis Wilbourne, Karson McCullen and Gene Kirby sang “In God We Still Trust.” Live entertainment was also provided throughout the day by Harrells and Mintz Christian academies, Clinton City Schools, Loralei Bellanger, Skylar Wallace, Kristin Barbrey and the group Voices of Grace.
Retired Capt. Alex Greyard explained the symbolism behind the Missing Man Table, accompanied by an empty chair, stationed next to the stage — for those who could not be here.
A single red rose signifies the blood that many have shed in sacrifice, he said. A slice of lemon on the plate represents the bitter fate of the missing, the sprinkle of salt the tears of families as they wait. The inverted glass means the fallen cannot partake, but the lit candle burns as a light of hope in the hearts of a grateful nation for a safe return home.
A slide show played throughout the meals displaying the names of business and industry partners, as well as individuals in the community, who financially supported the event. Many were made in honor or in memory of law enforcement officers past and present.
“We appreciate you,” McPhail said. “We appreciate being able to pick up the phone and punch in those three numbers and you show up. We appreciate that all too often bad things happen during meal time, during your child’s ball game or at 2 in the morning, and you are there. We appreciate that when we’re not always at our finest, you are. We appreciate that when most run away from danger, you run toward that same danger.”
He said the meals were just a small token to pay back that debt of gratitude.
“We appreciate the safety and security you provide in this community,” McPhail continued, “and we appreciate the lives you save.”
Asked leading up to the event about the in-depth planning that goes into catering three meals for the entire county’s law enforcement and emergency personnel, Sessoms said it was worth it.
“Of course it’s massive, but if you are going to do something, I believe you have to do it up right,” she said. “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.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.