After 21 years in the Army, Sgt. Donna Rayford retired to the quiet life of …. teaching ROTC students at Lincoln High School.
The job quickly became something of a love story between Rayford and the 140-plus students she worked with every year, and around the holidays that love came through.
“I knew some of my students lived in homes where there wasn’t going to be a Thanksgiving turkey and traditional meal,” Rayford said. “Some of them might not get a meal at all.”
Given that, Rayford started coming up with Thanksgiving baskets for about 35 students each November, asking fellow Lincoln staff members and friends from church - Bethlehem Baptist - for donations.
“We always got some, but my husband and I usually took care of most of it,” Rayford said.
Each November, Rayford would send a letter to her students asking if any of them needed help with Thanksgiving dinner. Their responses were always confidential.
“I told them, ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed,’” she said.
This year, Rayford’s heart got ahead of her mind. When she stood up to talk about the families that might need help, something in her made her change the announcement.
“I told them I needed the names and number of people living in each of their homes, because this year I wasn’t going to give away turkey baskets to a few families,” Rayford said. “As I was standing there, I told them ‘I’m going to assist all of you.’”
Rayford picked a date - Nov. 21 - and hired out the Lincoln cafeteria and staff from 5 to 7 p.m. Then she asked her students what they wanted on a Thanksgiving menu. The response was stunning.
The kids proposed menu?
Turkey, ham, chicken, chef salad, fruit salad, stuffing, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheeses, rice, yams, corn, green beans, collard greens, baked beans, cabbage, corn bread, rolls, Hawaiian break, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, cheesecake, pound cake, cookies, brownies, drinks and cranberry sauce.
Go ahead, exhale.
Rayford’s response? She sent out a letter and that menu to all the families of her students and asked them to check off anything there they might be able to help with, pointing out if they could not, they were more than welcome for dinner, anyway. She approached her usual fellow staffers and church members, asking for servers.
“I didn’t want any family member to serve, because I wanted all the families to have their meal together,” Rayford said.
She sought and got donations from Albertson’s and Grocery Outlet. Six people volunteered to bring macaroni and cheese, 34 turkeys wound up coming in.
Rayford and her army of friends and volunteers got the food cooked, the cafeteria decorated and tables set up. On the 21st, families began coming in and found a line to a remarkable buffet.
From that line, people could turn right or left and find a long table of food waiting for them.
More than 200 people showed up. There was so much food that many of them took home leftovers.
Rayford’s husband, Calvin, was among the servers.
“It was a wonderful evening, and it’s going to be the first of an annual event,” Sgt. Rayford said. “Everyone asked me how I enjoyed the food and I realized, I hadn’t eaten any of it. I was too busy organizing and talking to everyone.”
At your Thanksgiving table, remember the many people like Rayford and her friends whose spirit of sharing makes the difference to so many in our community. And enjoy your dinner!