For the past 23 years, Mark Hewitt and his staff at Love & Care Street Ministries have asked the citizens of Abilene and the Big Country to be part of Mission Thanksgiving, whether it be as a volunteer helping sort items or by donating goods to the drive that helps feed and clothe those around us who are in need.

And in each of those years, the Big Country has answered the call, donating thousands of tons of food and clothing items and raising millions of dollars to help their fellow citizens. On the morning of Nov. 18 at Arrow Ford – in the 24th iteration of Mission Thanksgiving – the tradition continued as the start of the annual event was well on its way to accepting more than 10 semi-truck trailer loads of goods and more than $200,000 in donations.

It’s become a signature event in the Big Country; one that started very modestly in 1999 with a little more than one trailer load of goods and $8,000 raised. Before the pandemic, Hewitt said they were averaging better than 800 volunteers per day with that number dropping precipitously in 2000. However, the volunteers have returned with between 300-500 scheduled to help at the two-day event.

Opening morning dawned clear and cold, but that didn’t stop donors, who began lining up to drop their items before the 7 a.m. start. The food that is donated will last in refrigerators and freezers for about 4-5 months, Hewitt said, while the non-perishable goods and clothing will last about 10 months, enough to get them through until next year’s event.

Hewitt and his staff couldn’t do what they do without volunteers from around the community. One group of volunteers for the first morning was from the HOSA group at Abilene High School. These future health professionals got an early start and by 8 a.m. were busily unloading cars and trucks and separating items into trailers labeled by what goes into each trailer.

Micaela Martinez, an AHS senior who is in the marching band and on the basketball team, said volunteering her time for Mission Thanksgiving is a highlight of her year.

“I’ve done this now all four years I’ve been at Abilene High, and it’s something I look forward to each year,” she said. “I like to come out and unload trucks and cars, meet people, and lend a helping hand to our community.”

Martinez, who was joined by three of her classmates, the AHS volleyball team, and Abilene Fire Department training cadets just to name a few, has been accepted to the University of Texas- Permian Basin where she’ll begin in the fall. However, she said she plans to continue her service in some capacity while in college.

“I’d like to continue serving because I’d like to serving and helping others, so I’m looking forward to getting involved in that when I get to Odessa,” Martinez said. “This is truly a blessing because so many people like to donate to others in need. This is truly something special and something I believe everyone should take part in. This has been a lot of fun and it’s been motivational to me because I know that one day I’ll be going through this line to drop off goods and food to help people in need.”

Hewitt’s mission depends on people just like Martinez.

“The need is great,” Hewitt said. “I believe what the Word says when it tells us the poor will always be with us. I just know times aren’t going to get any much better; they’re going to get tougher. God is sending stuff and people to help us and we’re in charge of putting it to use.

“We all think about the homeless in this kind of weather,” he said. “I think about them, too, but I also think about the people who don’t have heat in their houses. The impact to me is helping those people with blankets, clothes, coats, gloves, and toboggans to keep them warm at night.”