FLINT, Michigan—Autumn has set in with its blustery, biting wind, colorful leaves and dreary skies. Perhaps less than ideal weather for a barbecue, but the Flint Community Cookout is not the proverbial “fair weather friend.”
A group of volunteers, brace against the first chill of the year. The group includes about a dozen mostly 20- and 30-somethings who bring food, fun, and friendship to downtown Flint once a month, no matter the weather. It is their gift to the community they love, their one small way to make a difference.
The Flint Community Cookout is, quite simply, for everyone.
On the last Saturday of each month, volunteers meet at the Riverbank Park near Beach and West Union streets. They set up a grill and churn out hamburgers and hot dogs, offering a warm meal and a smile to everyone who comes. No matter why they come.
Some come because it a monthly block party of sorts for local residents. Some come because there are friends, families, and games for the kids. Some come to share what they have. Some come because it will be their only meal of the day and a bit of warmth in their stomachs.
“We shoot for a barbecue feel and environment,” Steven Elkins, 27, of Flint says. “This is not like a kitchen. The idea is to participate with guests. When stuff is done, the hope is to sit down and have a meal with someone.” Elkins, who has been volunteering for the past two years, was brought on board by his wife Sarah Elkins, 29. She and Tiff Sommers serve as coordinators for the ongoing volunteer effort.
The prep work starts early in the morning for the volunteer crew. Picnic tables are hefted into a yellow trailer just outside the garage at Riverside Tabernacle Church. The trailer is a relatively new, and welcomed, addition. Strategically planned and outfitted by Elevate Detroit, the trailer accommodates nearly all of the necessities for the cookout. This is the first time the crew will be bringing picnic tables—yet another effort to promote togetherness and community.
“My first cookout was in January. The wind was blowing so hard it was difficult to walk,” Sarah Elkins says, laughing. “It’s one small, positive thing we can create in the city.”
Depending on the weather, and other large events happening around the city, the cookouts usually host 300 to 400 attendees. At the October cookout, the volunteers are bringing 60 pounds of hamburger, about a hundred hot dogs, frosted cupcakes, and other various snacks. Those who can also will bring food to share—making it a giant potluck.
After playing guitar and singing, Derek Turcsanyi, 40, of Flint warms his fingers by slipping them into the sleeves of his sweatshirt. Turcsanyi, the worship director at Riverside Tabernacle, provides music at each cookout and has been for five years. His goal is to create a better atmosphere for everyone involved. To use music to gravitate away from the feeling of a feeding line, to a gathering of friends and family.
“There’s not always a response. Not always a response needed. But there is… in the heart,” says Turcsanyi as he smiles and braces against a gust of wind.
For guys like Steven Moore, 52, of Davison, helping others seems to come naturally. Moore, a retired police officer, enjoys the opportunity to connect with the community in a different manner than when he was on patrol.
“I get to meet people on a friendly basis. I’ve always liked helping people out and I’m retired, so they can’t get rid of me.”
Through various fundraisers such as polar plunges and dunk tanks, Flint Community Cookout volunteers have been able to purchase a trailer, new grill, and food for each cookout. What they are really looking for is volunteers.
Looking for partners throughout the city, they are searching for cookout “adoptions.” Groups, churches or parishes to operate the cookouts each month. Volunteers that want to be a part of the community and share meals.
“The point is for us to be eating together and having a good time,” Sarah Elkins reflects on her time spent organizing and volunteering at the cookout. “And showing (everyone) that they have value.”
The Flint Community Cookout is 1-4 p.m. on the last Saturday of each month at the Riverbank Park near West Union and Beach streets in downtown Flint. You can contact them on the Flint Community Cookout Facebook page