“A lot of effort from a lot of people,” he said, describing what it takes to get everything ready. “... We just have a lot of support. I’m very thankful for the support we have.”
Shortly after noon on Wednesday, hundreds of people were cycling through the dining area at the Haven of Mercy Ministries Homeless Shelter, 123 W. Millard St., for a free Christmas Day meal.
Rockley estimated Wednesday afternoon that shelter volunteers would end up serving between 4,000 and 5,000 people before the day was over, a total that includes meal deliveries. Volunteers also hand out food at the John Sevier Center and at the Unicoi County jail.
This is the 42nd year that the ministry has organized the event, which Rockley said can serve as a much-needed moment of kindness for disadvantaged people living in the area.
“We get a chance to spend time and hug on and love on a lot of people who don’t get much during the year,” he said. “Many of them come here to eat at night, but a good many of them only come on Christmas Day because they know we serve a fabulous meal.”
Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to be the biggest days at Haven of Mercy, Rockley said.
Inside, volunteers spooned mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, corn, cranberries, turkey and ham onto plates and delivered them to waiting visitors. Outside, parents and kids picked up toys like monster trucks and mini-helicopters from bins and household necessities like toothbrushes and other toiletries.
Santa Claus even made an appearance.
Rockley said there were probably 175 volunteers working on Christmas Day. Erwin resident Houston Tittle, who’s been volunteering with the shelter for 15 or 16 years, was one of them.
“When we were younger, my parents and my parents’ best friend brought all the kids over here so we could kind of give back,” he said.
Tittle has been in the Army for 10 years, and said coming home to help people is a staple of Christmas.
“You don’t know if that person you’re passing on the street is hungry,” Tittle said, “and while you’re shopping, all you’re thinking about is me, me, me, my family, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff. And that person is hungry. They need this. They need somewhere like this to not be judged.”
Working at the shelter on Christmas Day has become a regular tradition for Tittle, who wants to eventually pass that spirit of service along to his sons.
“When our boys get old enough, we’re definitely bringing them here,” he said.
Wednesday marked Richard Morris’ first time eating a Christmas meal at Haven of Mercy. He’d previously stopped by the shelter a couple years ago for Thanksgiving dinner.
Morris lives in Elizabethton and previously served in the Army. Just two years ago, he overcame a battle with colon cancer. He was at the shelter on Christmas Day with his brother, who lives at the John Sevier Center.
Morris, who grew up in the Johnson City area, moved back to the region from Asheville in 2013 to be closer to family and friends. Morris also has two sisters — one in Johnson City and another in Philadelphia.
He planned to celebrate the rest of Christmas Day with his family, and thoroughly enjoyed his meal at Haven of Mercy.
“The ham, the turkey, the mashed potatoes, even the sweet potatoes,” he said. “All of it was good.”