A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_176982" align="alignright" width="300"] A total of 265 volunteers were on hand at The Salvation Army in 2022, including Director Annamarie Jakubielski (left) and Joe Wroble.[/caption] Joe Wroble has a

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_176982" align="alignright" width="300"] A total of 265 volunteers were on hand at The Salvation Army in 2022, including Director Annamarie Jakubielski (left) and Joe Wroble.[/caption] Joe Wroble has a

Hendersonville’s Bounty of Bethlehem

Volunteers and community members come together at the Bounty of Bethlehem buffet
Annamarie Jakubielski and Joe Wroble volunteer at the Bounty of Bethehem in

A total of 265 volunteers were on hand at The Salvation Army in 2022, including Director Annamarie Jakubielski (left) and Joe Wroble. photograph by Tim Robison

Joe Wroble has a problem. In three days, he’ll be serving Christmas dinner to more than 2,000 people. Wroble oversees a team of volunteers responsible for prepping and smoking 165 turkeys in the parking lot of The Salvation Army in downtown Hendersonville. But the forecast is not so ho-ho-hopeful. Santa Claus is coming to town, but it seems that he’ll also be bringing along the weather from the North Pole — temperatures plummeting to 0 degrees and a wind chill as frigid as minus 20.

Wroble’s team gets busy. They move the turkey prep indoors. They bundle up and brave the elements to mind the outdoor smokers. They monitor the gas burners that the high winds keep conspiring to blow out. In the end, when residents begin lining up on Christmas Day, the workers’ warm hearts and willing hands triumph over the cold to pull off Bounty of Bethlehem, the Henderson County holiday feast that’s staffed by volunteers, supported completely by donations, and welcoming to all.

Bounty of Bethlehem’s director, Annamarie Jakubielski, herself a 14-year volunteer, describes the occasion as “a Christmas dinner given by the community for the community.”

The Bounty of Bethlehem Feast inside a gymnasium

An otherwise-nondescript gymnasium transforms into a festive dining room for the community Bounty of Bethlehem feast. photograph by Tim Robison

The sit-down event is held in what’s normally a nondescript cinder-block gymnasium. But today, it’s been transformed into a festive dining room decked out with glittering garlands and scarlet poinsettias. A constellation of round tables fills the space, each adorned with a miniature Christmas tree. And people’s clothing complements the decor: lots of fire-engine red and forest green, Santa hats and reindeer antlers.

On a small stage in a corner, guitarist and one-man band Tom Brown sets the mood with a catchy repertoire of holiday songs, golden oldies, and gospel tunes. With his trusty Fender Jazzmaster guitar and a roster of prerecorded backing tracks, Brown has provided the entertainment at Bounty since 2006. He calls it “my favorite gig that I’ve ever done” — a high compliment coming from a man who’s played more than 7,000 shows over a 65-year career. When he starts in on a rockin’ version of “Frosty the Snowman,” volunteers staffing the buffet instinctively seize the rhythm. Their toe-tapping, hip-shaking, and hand-waving moves transform the serving line into an impromptu dance line.

Throughout the gym, the fragrance of good cheer envelops the scene. Scents of rosemary and sage waft from trays of freshly sliced smoked turkey. The aroma of cinnamon and brown sugar coaxes attendees toward the sweet potato casserole. The intoxicating mix of celery and onion urges folks to take an extra helping of homemade roast stuffing. And the bouquet of melted butter and garlic from the string beans and carrots ensures that everyone will be eating their vegetables today.

• • •

Started in 1983 at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hendersonville, Bounty of Bethlehem was initially held at the Catholic school next door. But it eventually moved to The Salvation Army, evolving into an annual gathering with no specific religious affiliation other than the spirit embodied in Bible verses like 1 Timothy 6:18: “Be rich in good deeds and be generous and willing to share.” That boundless embrace of the entire community in all its richness and diversity — from the volunteers to the guests they serve — is a hallmark of this Henderson County tradition.

No one appreciates that embrace more than Jaqueline Hernandez. She discovered Bounty after moving here from Querétaro, Mexico, in 1995, and she’s been returning ever since. Today, she’s seated at a table surrounded by family — her husband, Jacinto; her sisters, Hilda and Elda; and her niece Dulce. They’re enjoying the attention of the volunteers, who are making sure that the family has everything they need. And they’re getting to know some of their fellow guests. Hernandez loves interacting with the diversity of faiths and ethnicities and backgrounds. It’s what keeps bringing her back each year.

A takeout box of Christmas ham and all the fixins' from the Bounty of Bethlehem

Volunteers deliver take-home meals to everyone from homebound community members to service workers. photograph by Tim Robison

The food is another reason that she and her family come here. Hernandez fell in love with the turkey and dressing the first time she tried it. And today she’s pleased to see an unexpected new menu item: beans and rice. Jakubielski and her kitchen team added the dish this year to provide Henderson County’s Hispanic and Latino communities with a traditional taste of home. “I’ve always felt welcome at Bounty of Bethlehem,” Hernandez says. “But this makes me feel even more so.”

The mood in the dining area is decidedly upbeat, but there are also quiet, poignant moments in which the truest meaning of Bounty of Bethlehem is revealed. Susan M. Ferrell, a chef volunteering for the first time, encounters an elderly gentleman. As they exchange greetings, he tells her that he’s recently lost his wife and has come to Bounty because he doesn’t want to be alone. Instinctively, Ferrell reaches out, puts her arms around him, and hugs him tightly. “There are those who need to be embraced and those who are here to embrace,” she says. “I just want to be a blessing to someone else.”

Jakubielski says that people come from all walks of life — from the affluent to the homeless — to partake in the annual gathering. “I’ve been alone at Christmas,” she says, “and it’s hard. No one should be alone at Christmas.”

A Bounty of Bethlehem volunteer helps load takeout meal into a car.

Volunteers braved sub-zero temperatures to get 1,339 take-home meals to folks all across the region. photograph by Tim Robison

Not everybody can come to Bounty — so Bounty goes to them. Outside, teams of workers hustle and bustle in the parking lot, their breath punctuating the air with little clouds of condensation. They supply meals to an army of volunteer drivers, who fan out across Henderson County’s frost-covered coves and softly sloping mountains. O’er the hills they go, delivering to the homebound and to the more than 150 public servants — law enforcement, firefighters, and EMTs — who have to work during the holidays and can’t be with their families. Take-out meals with all the trimmings are also provided to drive-through customers who prefer to enjoy their Christmas repast at home.

Leanne Christensen, who’s volunteered for the past eight years with her husband, Russ, comes prepared for the polar blast. She’s wearing tights, a pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, boots, a sweater, a vest, a jacket, gloves, and a headband. Even so, she and fellow volunteers like Lisa Kauffman seek out temporary refuge in the most unlikely of places: A refrigerator truck — packed with pans of sliced turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, and mashed potatoes awaiting the heating ovens — turns out to be a warmer-than-the-outdoors haven.

• • •

Volunteers like Christensen and Kauffman are the lifeblood of Bounty of Bethlehem. And every volunteer’s journey to Bounty is unique. Take Joe Wroble: Growing up in North Plainfield, New Jersey, his most hated childhood chore was drying silverware and dishes. “With such a big family, the job was never-ending,” he says. Wroble remembers constantly swapping duties with his siblings to avoid the dish-towel drudgery.

As an adult, he moved to Hendersonville, where his oldest sister lived. She invited him to come volunteer at Bounty of Bethlehem. He agreed to help. When he showed up on Christmas morning, he asked his sister, “What did you sign me up for?” Her response was like a punch line to a bad joke: “Drying the silverware.”

During Wroble’s second year of volunteering, as he was scurrying from one urgent task to another, a young worker rushed by and shouted, “What’s your name?” Caught off guard, Wroble replied, “Just Joe.” Mischievously, the teen scribbled “Just Joe” on his name tag. “I wore it for a day,” Wroble says. “Then they kept making me official name tags with ‘Just Joe.’ That’s what everyone calls me now.”

“Just Joe” is anything but “just.” With his background in engineering and tool and die making, Wroble has become the go-to problem solver whenever things go awry at Bounty. He’s also found his niche troubleshooting the many cooking challenges that invariably arise. He’s built prep tables, heating ovens, grills, and, for this year’s event, a 40-foot canopy for the outside.

As for his initial place at the drying station all those years ago, Wroble soon realized that the location was perfect. It gave him a front-row seat to the whole event. He could see all of the volunteers cooking, serving, clearing tables, and spreading good cheer. He could see how the simple communion of good food and conversation transformed strangers who’d just been seated together into friends by the time dessert was served.

He saw an entire community come together in the spirit of giving. And at the end of the day, Just Joe realized that even burdensome chores have a way of turning into outsize blessings.

This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

Brad Campbell

In addition to being a regular contributor to Our State, Brad Campbell is a storyteller and a winner of multiple Moth StorySLAM competitions.