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As other residents moved out of Flint’s rough north side amid a decline in automotive jobs, Chia Morgan’s parents decided to stay, “to be a light in the neighborhood,” she explains. “That’s where my love for the community came from,” she says, adding, “My parents are my lifeline.” Now Ms. Morgan herself has become a beacon in this Michigan city, one of the nation’s poorest, most dangerous, and most traumatized urban areas. In the shadows of the Great Recession back in 2009 she had a vision – literally in a dream – of feeding the community’s hungry. Now the annual meal, called “Blessed to be a Blessing,” is in its 10th year and serves hundreds of residents. A range of donors and local groups lend financial support. And Morgan’s parents are at her side preparing the food. “We got no funds right now,” says Chrystal Williams, a 34-year-old Flint native who is currently unemployed and attended the dinner on Tuesday night with her two children. “It made a big difference.”
Chia Morgan vividly recalls the fall 2009 dream – one she firmly believes was a message from God – that inspired her to organize her first Thanksgiving dinner for needy city residents with just two months’ notice.
“I was feeding kids and their families a Thanksgiving meal, and it felt amazing,” says Ms. Morgan, whose dinner, now an annual event, is called Blessed to be a Blessing. The dinner, named in part for Morgan’s thankfulness for being able to give back, marked its 10th year on Tuesday. “But the only food I distinctly remember is the mashed potatoes – and I don’t even like mashed potatoes,” she says with a laugh as she bought last-minute door prizes Sunday night at a local Walmart.
Today Blessed to be a Blessing boasts a DJ, dancing, and local celebrities – the mayor and police chief made appearances this year – who serve home-cooked food to more than 600 city residents.
Morgan’s effort, one of many charity meals being served across America this holiday week, is an example of how a community can be strengthened when one person sees an unmet need and takes action. Her annual Flint dinner is now backed by a wide range of entities: private donors both large and small, the local community foundation, a credit union, Morgan’s father’s church and its nonprofit, and the local Catholic Charities office that hosts the event.
Morgan’s dream woke her one cool September morning, with the nation in the shadow of a deep recession. She says she quickly got ready for her work day, hopped in her car and drove to a friend’s job to share her vision. “She was like, lets make it happen,” says Morgan, who friends describe as an unbelievably energetic community activist and natural giver.
“For certain people, this is the only opportunity to have a Thanksgiving dinner,” explains Morgan, who annually pulls all-nighters to stage the event. She likes to say that the meal includes “anything you would have at your gramma’s house for Thanksgiving, down to the German chocolate cake.”
“We got no funds right now,” says Chrystal Williams, a 34-year-old Flint native and mother of two who brought her 13-year-old daughter Yanni and her one-year-old daughter Fatiah to the dinner this year after her mother saw a story about it on a local news station. “It made a big difference. I didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Ms. Williams, who is currently unemployed.
Morgan is a care coordinator at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint by day. Her job is to help patients who are victims of crimes such as sexual assault and gun violence get the support they need once they leave the hospital. Morgan says she herself has lost two close friends to gun violence.
Her work in Flint, one of America’s poorest, most dangerous, and most traumatized cities, has drawn the admiration of many in her community. The single mom’s enthusiasm led her to make an unsuccessful run for city council in 2017, but community leaders say they believe her political future could be bright.
“She’ll run again, and she’ll find her place in the politics of this community, because she cares that much,” says Isaiah Oliver, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. “She’s doing amazing work…. The water crisis [involving lead pollution] accelerated and catapulted her work.”
Another signature event of Morgan’s, known around town, is an annual summer resource fair for Flint residents at a neighborhood park. The fair connects residents with everything from affordable health-care plans to free haircuts.
Blessed to be a Blessing is an example of the lengths the rare person like Morgan will go to ensure those less fortunate have an authentic holiday experience.
The dinner “makes people feel good inside, and reminds them they are still loved,” says Garrett Rice, a longtime Flint resident and co-worker of Morgan’s who volunteered at the event and dropped off a donation of socks last week. “She’s really about helping people.”
Morgan’s supporters include the public safety department at the local community college, which she and her mom attended alongside one another. The pair went on to attend college and graduate school together, and both hold a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan-Flint.
Her mother, Debra, cooks most of the food that is served each year, including the yams, the dressing, and mashed potatoes. The greens and green beans are all grown in the garden tended by Morgan’s father, Will, the pastor at Pentecostal Temple Apostolic Church in Flint, which like many Flint churches is small but highly active. He is also the president of Well of Hope, the church’s nonprofit and a sponsor of the dinner. Another hat Morgan wears: Treasurer on Well of Hope’s board.
“If there’s a nonprofit organization in the community looking to make change, Chia is normally there,” says DeAndra Larkin, a vice president at the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce. “When I see Chia at something, she has a really good vibe and energy, so usually I know that it is going to be a good conversation.”
Morgan’s plans for the first Thanksgiving dinner started off piecemeal. As word of mouth spread, one person would offer a can of corn, and so on. Someone else offered a cake from a regional grocery chain. Morgan laughed recalling those early offerings as she she sorted donated socks with 9th-grader Zaire Riley, for giveaway at the dinner.
The teen volunteer says, barely above a whisper and with a sheepish smile, that “it feels nice to be helping out.” Morgan verifies volunteer hours for students like Riley, and says it’s nice to have an opportunity for younger volunteers who aren’t as outgoing to be able to help in a more private setting than a big volunteer-heavy event.
Thousands of socks are given away at Morgan’s dinner each year. Morgan started giving out donated socks after she noticed some of those in attendance weren’t wearing any.
Morgan’s first Thanksgiving dinner fed 100 people, and spread mostly on word-of-mouth. Today, it is annually highlighted in advance by local media. Morgan advertises heavily on social media and receives donations via Amazon from strangers she never meets.
Morgan grew up on Flint’s north side, which has the rougher reputation. She says that, as other residents moved out amid a decline in automotive jobs, her parents decided to stay “to be a light in the neighborhood.”
“That’s where my love for the community came from,” says Morgan. “My parents are my lifeline.”
She grew up in a home that took in numerous foster children; one where her father often introduced kids from his church and in the neighborhood as his own. He bought winter coats, shoes, bicycles, and even threw birthday parties for children who had less than his own three. Morgan, the middle child, has a 6-year-old daughter everyone refers to as MRB. She often helps out at events her mother organizes.
“I’m very proud of my daughter,” says Mr. Morgan, Chia’s father. “When she sees a problem that touches her heartstrings, she tries to address it.” He calls her a “beautiful spirit” with a charismatic daughter “about as well known as Chia.” He adds that she “grew up in a home full of love, surrounded by family.”
Sometimes the obstacles she and her father have faced together are daunting. An event Morgan organized that connected police, community organizations, and young people to combat violence went on for three years, but then lost momentum after the air conditioner was stolen at its community-center location, her father recounts.
But people who know her say she’s not at all easily deterred.
“She’s a go-getter, when she gets an idea in her mind, she’s gonna make it happen,” says Vicky Schultz, CEO of Catholic Charities of Shiawasee and Genesee, which has hosted Morgan’s dinner for years. When Morgan has an idea, says Ms. Schultz, who volunteered at the dinner this year, “you don’t think twice, you just get on board.”