November has been a heartbreaking month for Dorothy Peterson for the past 24 years with the tragic loss of two teenaged sons one year apart in November of 1997 and ’98.

But as the sun shone down on Blackshear City Park on Saturday at the first “Thanksgiving in the Park” community meal, her tears of anguish turned to cries of gratitude.

“This is such a blessing,” the mother of five said as she wiped her eyes before enjoying a full Thanksgiving meal with her grown son Gordon Peterson and his wife Marie. “I’ve been through it, but God bless everyone doing this.”

Sherri Robson, also a Blackshear mother of five, had no idea Peterson had endured the tragic loss of two sons in this month of thanks and forgiveness when she felt led by the Lord to organize an event that in the end would feed more than 300 hungry and hurting citizens in Pierce County.

“You just never know what people have endured or are still going through,” Robson said. “All I knew is I needed to do something to help those who are suffering during a time of year that has always been a joyous occasion for my family.”

Robson had been praying for Gordon Peterson for the past six months after he’d been struck down by COVID-19 and his heart stopped on

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 the way to Memorial Satilla Hospital in Waycross.

She knew she’d probably see them Saturday as they were among about 260 people who had registered to receive a hot turkey meal and bag of groceries.

She had no idea Gordon would have been Peterson’s third loss if he hadn’t pulled through.

“It was so good to see Gordon and Marie,” she said as Marie pushed Gordon’s wheelchair across the park parking lot on their way back to their vehicle. “It was the first time I’d met his mom. She’s a sweetheart.”

Earlier, Dorothy Peterson had shared her story after  school bus driver and part-time pastor Steve Boatright prayed with them at one of several round tables set up on the park tennis court that’d been donated by Bridge Church.

On November 29, 1997, her 13-year-old son was accidentall y killed by a shotgun blast by a friend playing with his father’s loaded gun.

A year later, on November 3, her 17-year-old son was run down in their front yard in Blackshear by a pick-up truck that had veered off the street, killing him.

The grief was unbearable, leading her to try to take her own life twice.

“I finally got through the bitterness and depression, but it took quite a few years,” Peterson said. “I’m still not completely over it, but God’s been there for me. If it wasn’t for the Lord in my life I don’t know what I’d do. It’s things like this that remind you of God’s grace and the goodness of others. Praise God.”

Robson said the Thanksgiving meal had been on her heart for the past 12 years, but she could never get others to commit to helping her put something togather — until this year.

“I had helped with a Thanksgiving meal in Waycross that the Mary Street Mission did at the time and ever since then it’s been something I felt God put in my heart and we needed to do in our community,” she said. “I think I’d been waiting for somebody’s approval and validation that this is what I was supposed to do.”

It wasn’t until she’d been locked down in her home off Georgia Highway 121 with her husband Richard and 16-year-old son Jonathan last year due to her own health concerns that she began to understand the loneliness and isolation of many in the community.

Finally stepping out in faith in September, she put together a core team of nine friends and others she knew from various churches, the Rockin’ Bear Cafe and Wall’s IGA to turn this dream into a reality.

She began blasting Facebook with the news and handing out flyers, encouraging folks to register for the free meals by early November so they could get a head count.

Jerry Hersey at Emmanuel Baptist volunteered to make large batches of dressing and green beans in the church kitchen, some generous women at Walkerville Baptist whipped up the sweet potato casserole, and Wall’s IGA stepped up to cook 19 turkeys that had been purchased with the $2,250 Robson had received in monetary donations, as well as several large containers of macaroni and cheese. Four additional turkeys were supplied by other volunteers and 200 paper grocery bags full of canned goods, cereals, pasta, snacks and drinks were provided by the DC Downtown Food Pantry in Waycross.

Jason Hersey, the owner of Rockin’ Bear Cafe and the Pierce Diner, and his helper Matt Crosby supplied utensils and their food serving expertise to the venture and Jason’s father, Jerry, helped Richard Robson tear apart the turkeys to keep that main staple on the serving line.

Sherri Robson, a member of the Jacksonville-based Church of Eleven22, stressed that this event was not about just one church or one group of people.

“This was truly a community-wide effort,” she said. “As my friend Brenda Palvadore who helped me so much with this said, ‘God is really showing off.’ It’s something I hope to do every year and I also want to do something similar in the Spring around Easter time.”

Robson said it’s time for local churches to step up and work together on a daily basis to help those in need throughout the year — not just during holidays and not only during overseas missions.

“If we are all the body of Christ – and we are – then we need to work together,” she said, frustrated. “The unity Saturday serving people in our community was amazing.Churched and unchurched, different denominations and different races working together for the benefit of others was such a blessing and encouraged my heart that we truly can work together!”

At the end of the event Saturday after the serving line had closed down at 2 p.m., there were still 45 to-go containers and 75 bags of groceries left.

So they filled a large trailer attached to Richard Robson’s pick-up truck and drove down Central Avenue on the other side of the railroad tracks near the Blackshear Train Depot and knocked on the doors of homes lining those tracks.

By about 3 p.m. nearly every bit of food was in the hands of the appreciative.

“The Police Department took the last few bags to an area where they knew people were hungry,” Robson said. “I thought it was pretty awesome they wanted to do that!”