Filled with hope: Good Cheer basket sorting a tradition for many

For generations of families, waking up early on Good Cheer Fund delivery day is a beloved chance to do some good.

They get breakfast together, drive to JCREMC to pick up baskets and spend hours dropping off food to families in need throughout the county.

But for some groups, it’s the night before the delivery when the magic happens.

“This helps them to be thankful for what they have, and helping someone less fortunate. It could be someone in our own school, so think about that when you’re putting together these baskets,” said Kelly Warner, a fifth-grade teacher at Ray Crowe Elementary School, who has led Clark-Pleasant student council members in sorting baskets for the past five years.

All the food that’s been purchased, and the tens of thousands of canned and boxed goods that have been donated, need to be sorted, separated and put into the baskets and boxes going out to the community on Dec. 18.

A dedicated group of volunteers has made sorting their own tradition, one that ensures the Good Cheer Fund goes off seamlessly every Christmas.

“It’s refreshing to know that people all over the county are being taken care of this time of year,” said Kenny Dickey, who organizes the Good Cheer Fund activities at JCREMC

The Good Cheer Fund is an annual charity drive raising money and food to help the hungry during the holiday season. Donations from the community are used to buy fresh food, such as produce, potatoes, meat, cheese and milk, as well as additional items to ensure families have food to eat for days after Christmas.

“This is our 101st year for Good Cheer because the community really owns this,” said Jacob Sappenfield, chairman of the Good Cheer Fund. “Each volunteer has their own reasons why its important to them, but the general feel from my perspective is that our community really cares about their neighbors. We don’t want to see anyone struggle with hunger, especially during the holidays.”

The fund was founded in 1921 by Austin Flinn, a local funeral home owner, and the Franklin Evening Star. Organizers appealed to the community’s generosity, particularly in reaching out to families with no other way of getting help.

In a column introducing the fund, the Franklin Evening Star wrote, “In several homes, mothers of young babies are in real need and are dependent on charity for food and clothing. No normal man or woman in Franklin would deliberately go to bed tonight if they knew of some woman or baby who was suffering for fuel, food or clothing.”

That first year, $169 was donated to help feed 110 families. Now, organizers plan to serve 850 households this year, an increase from the approximately 800 deliveries made in the past few years , Sappenfield said.

“The population is growing, the need is going up, so we’re going to add more baskets to meet that need,” he said.

All the food for those increased baskets come from non-perishable items collected by area schools, as well as the fresh food purchased and delivered in the days leading up to the distribution.

By the week before delivery, the storeroom at JCREMC is filled with a chaotic mass of food that needs to be systematically put in order. Luckily, organizers have the sorting and distribution down to a science.

“If you sit back and watch it, it’s amazing how fast it gets done. The people who have done it before just come in and they know what they’re doing,” Dickey said.

JCREMC has been an integral part of the Good Cheer Fund process since the early 1990s. The energy cooperative offered their spacious Franklin facility as the place to store the food and fill the baskets before delivery.

“What we like to do from a company standpoint is be involved in the community in different ways, and this was one way we could do that,” said Terry Miller, director of finance and accounting at JCREMC.

Good Cheer is a tradition that captures the attention of many JCREMC employees. They help clean out the main storage area, where all of the Good Cheer baskets will be assembled, and haul the hundreds of baskets out of their storage barn that will be distributed to schools throughout the county for students to donate canned and boxed foods.

On the morning of delivery, they open up their doors, and many of them take part in the delivery process.

Before that happens, volunteers from JCREMC also take the time to sort and fill the baskets. Miller started coming in with his young children the night before delivery, which proved to be a good introduction to the Good Cheer Fund tradition.

“When I first started doing it, my kids were in elementary school, so that was a good way to get them involved in it. They looked at it as a fun thing to do to sort all of those baskets,” Miller said, before adding with a laugh, “now that they’re older, the fun has worn off a little bit, but they still go and deliver and do that kind of thing.”

One of the regular groups that joins Miller and other volunteers is the student council from Clark-Pleasant schools.

Warner has been bringing student council members for about five years ago. At the time, she was working at Whiteland Elementary School, and suggested bringing the council together to do a service project with the Good Cheer Fund.

“We collect the canned goods as part of a contest with all of our grade levels,” Warner said. “We only allow the fifth graders to do this as a special thing since they’re the oldest in the school.”

In her new position at Ray Crowe Elementary, she has continued the tradition. Seeing the students connect the act of donating food to why those donations are so important is special, she said.

“It’s amazing to see the kids realize that this is why we collect those cans,” Warner said. “They bring the canned goods, put them in the basket and we count them. But they never get to see the reason behind why we collect them.”