Army Pvt. Randall Enders made the grateful sounds that come from eating homemade desserts for the first time in a long time at Harlem's annual Military Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday.
"I haven't had a meal like this since ... home," the 19-year-old Riverside, Calif., native said as he tasted numerous desserts volunteers had prepared for the feast. "It is the first Thanksgiving I haven't been with my family."
Making the more than 250 service members feel at home and appreciated was one of the goals of the fifth annual dinner held at Harlem United Methodist Church. This year's event was put on by the church, Columbia County Community Connections, the city of Harlem and resident volunteers.
Volunteers served guests, cleared dishes and refilled drinks, among other tasks. Included in their ranks were Department of Public Safety Chief Jerry Baldwin, Magistrate Judge Wade Padgett and Harlem City Council members, in addition to members of the Harlem High School Young Women of Excellence, Columbia County Chamber of Commerce Youth Leadership, Fort Gordon Youth Challenge, Cub Scout Pack 157, Boy Scout Troop 157 and Brownie Troop 54.
"They serve us; it is time we serve them," said Paula Beckman, the mother of a Marine and a member of the chamber's youth leadership committee.
Sgt. Tijuana Cheek, a drill sergeant, said the off-time is what the soldiers need to recharge.
Pvt. Brittany Lewis wasn't able to go to Dover, Del., for Thanksgiving this year and said the meal and hospitality made her feel closer to home. She said she especially enjoyed the performances by members of the North Harlem Elementary School chorus and the Harlem Middle School band.
"This is amazing. We've been waiting so long for a home-cooked meal," Lewis said. "It makes us feel really good. All the stuff we have gone through, what we are going through right now, it is so good to stand here and (know) these people are proud of us."
Harlem wasn't the only place soldiers were fed and appreciated this week. Old Union Baptist Church put on a Thanksgiving feast for about 30 airmen from the Air Force 338th Training Squadron, while Wesley United Methodist Church welcomed additional service members Wednesday evening.
The Rev. Keith Boggs, of Old Union, said their event came out of the need to support the six families in the church with deployed military personnel.
"We've been praying for them, but we felt like we needed to do something for our soldiers," Boggs said. "We can develop relationships with them right now, so if they go somewhere else, we can stay in touch with them, and they know somebody in Harlem cares about them."
Sgt. Paul Evans, drill sergeant for the group, said all except 13 of the 42-member group will be headed home for the holidays. But the time to relax and unwind is priceless for the airmen who range in age from 18 to 34.
"Some of them have been in the Air Force less than six months," Evans said.
After getting a full belly of homemade Thanksgiving favorites, the soldiers learned about the ministry opportunities on Fort Gordon and were given daily devotionals to make their future service or deployments a little easier.
"So they can be encouraged," Boggs said.
"We didn't think it was fair to feed their bodies physically if we didn't feed them spiritually."
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