On a particularly chilly night in Tennessee eight years ago, Cyndi Sweet, ABR, GRI, an agent with LeConte Realty in Maryville, Tenn., was up late worrying about the city’s homeless. “I couldn’t help but think about the people who aren’t in a warm bed and who are hungry and cold and tired,” Sweet recalls.
She gathered friends and fellow church parishioners together to brainstorm how they might help homeless people and those living in extreme poverty. The group decided to start packing and handing out boxed lunches—a sandwich with fruit or a bag of chips and a drink—each Monday under a downtown bridge where the homeless congregated.
Then, the group decided to start cooking warm dinners themselves. Each member of the group would make a dish at home, and they’d all come together to serve a warm meal to the homeless. “We’d set up a table and serve a cafeteria-style meal,” Sweet says. “It grew from a few people we’d serve to 200-250 meals served every Monday.”
About three years into the endeavor, the volunteers decided they wanted to maximize their impact and create a sustainability plan to serve the community long-term. They needed to apply for nonprofit status so they could be eligible for grants. Sweet enlisted the guidance of a local nonprofit, and A Place at the Table Knoxville was formalized soon after the volunteers submitted their nonprofit application.
A Place at the Table Knoxville has a seven-member board and 25 regular volunteers. It has served around 200 people every Monday for the past eight years and added Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to their schedule. The nonprofit also partnered with a local church to use its kitchen for meal prep and serve food in the fellowship hall.
Sweet says giving back to the community in this way keeps her humble and reminds her that even in the best of times, every community has a need to be filled. “Being in real estate full-time, I see people who have the opportunity to purchase a home every day. So, it’s really important to remember that not everyone has that opportunity,” she adds.She has high hopes for the organization, starting with serving meals more than once per week. Eventually, she says, she’d love to open a pay-what-you-can restaurant and employ people she serves today. She’s hopeful that one day these dreams will come to fruition. She also says it’s important to her to help the homeless and the poor feel a sense of dignity and community. “I think that every human being deserves to be treated with respect,” Sweet says. “This gives them the opportunity to feel more human and to be cared for. Everyone deserves that.”