By Benjamin Bullard
The Cullman Times
GOOD HOPE —
Back in the tough economy of 2008, Paul Schwaiger had an idea.
The holidays were approaching. The Good Hope resident looked around his community, and he didn’t see a lot of people with extra money in their pockets. He knew he couldn’t singlehandedly turn around a tough economy or find jobs for everyone who was out of work. But he could do something.
“Four years ago, people were having a hard time having any dinner at all at Thanksgiving,” said Schwaiger Wednesday, perched on a stool at the Good Hope school lunchroom. “I interrupted a [Good Hope city council] meeting, and asked them if there was any way to get this started. I told them I would give the first donation.”
What he started was a Thanksgiving meal drive aimed at giving some of his hurting neighbors a day’s respite from the ever-present reminders that times were tough. He didn’t want Thanksgiving dinner to be a luxury out of reach for anyone who called Good Hope home.
“My dad always said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ And if you give a dime, you’ll gain a dollar. He always taught me to be right with everybody,” he said.
Even though Schwaiger’s idea was put before the Good Hope city council, implementing the free Thanksgiving meal idea never cost the city any money. Council member Jerry Bartlett, who oversees community services on the council, collaborated with Schwaiger and seniors in the community, putting their heads together to find a way to secure the meals at cost.
“At the time when we started this, I worked with Cullman County Schools — I was a teacher for 28 years,” said Bartlett. “Paul had approached us and wanted to do something for the people who were hungry. So I got to talking to child nutrition, and asked how we could put on a dinner the day before Thanksgiving. And they just said we could use the lunchroom, and they’d order the food for us at cost.
“We started off with 250 plates the first year. Then we went to 500. Last year we went to 1,100, and now we’re at 1,500. Paul donated the first $100, and every single year he’s still the first to do that. We have such good community support with it now, both with the donations and with the help we get with the food and the lunchroom workers who prepare it. We just paid our bill for this year. It was $1,300 — less than a dollar a plate.”
Mayor Corey Harbison said that kind of spirit may not be unique to Good Hope, but he appreciates living in a city where the residents rally around a worthwhile idea.
“Paul just had it in his mind to do this, and from that one idea, a lot of people saw the kind of good it could do. The dinner still benefits those who are in need first, and they always make sure that the first dinners go to people who need it the most. But it’s grown every year, and now we just have a lot of people who come, not necessarily because they need to, but because they want to be a part of it.
“And really, that’s fine with us. We just want people to get together and, you know, if they got a free meal and got to visit with their neighbors, then maybe they’ll go out and do something good for somebody else. Christmas is coming, so there’s plenty of opportunity to be like Paul, and get out there and do something to help somebody else.”
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.