The public is invited to share a Christmas meal and fellowship with neighbors at either of two locations on Sunday, Dec. 25.
Many members of the community will serve a potluck meal at Pine Bluff High School at 711 W. 11th Ave. and the TOPPS Big Wreck building at 1000 Townsend Park Drive. The dinners will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Ryan Watley is organizing the outreach for the seventh year, although he deflected praise and credited other people. His friends and he brought food to homeless shelters for the first four Christmases and will be offering the meals at other locations for the third consecutive year.
“The Pine Bluff community is strong,” Watley, who earned a doctorate degree in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma and is a professor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and assistant director of development in the athletics department, said. “I thank everyone who has brought a side dish and done anything over the six years. We have sat down and eaten as a community: rich or poor, you would not know the difference. We have hosted firefighters and police officers. It is a great thing.”
Watley requests people make side dishes and bring them to the outreach event.
“It was originally designed as an outreach for those less fortunate, where deliveries would be made to certain shelters,” Watley added in a written statement. “Over time, we have transitioned to hosting two locations and are more inclusive as citizens from various socioeconomic backgrounds opt to come and share their Christmas. We put a lot of effort into getting the word out and asking citizens to make their best side dish, along with ensuring those looking for a place to dine are informed.”
Watley expects to be able to feed 600 people this year. As of Wednesday, they have secured 19 turkeys, 15 hams and 400 pieces of chicken.
Reginald Howard is also helping prepare the Christmas dinner. He welcomes people to call him at (870) 692-9096 to arrange transportation “so they can be a part of the meal. We will bring meals to people who cannot get out.”
“I get so much from the gratification of knowing I have done something for the greater good of the less fortunate,” Howard, a native of McGehee, who has lived in Pine Bluff for 25 years, said.
Pine Bluff native Gregory Epperson is also helping to organize the Christmas dinner. He is looking forward to seeing people of different backgrounds coming together to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. He delights in seeing the smiles on the faces of less fortunate people.
“I am one of the ones that Ryan first talked to about doing it,” Epperson said. “I am his right-hand man. I was there with him and said ‘we can do it.’ It is amazing. I can’t believe it has been seven years. The city of Pine Bluff has made us the men we are today. This is our way of giving back. Everyone wants to be loved. Unfortunately, not everyone gets to be part of a family at Christmas.”
Epperson has posted flyers, used social media and done a radio interview to publicize the outreach event.
Watley said he loves bringing people together.
“There is a gap that needs to be filled and we step in to fill the gap,” Watley said. “It is a platform to show community strength.”
Watley welcomes people to contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.