By MARIE NESMITH
What do four Mandalorians and a giant Baby Yoda have in common? A pair of trophies and the ability to wield a decked out mobile bed frame to victory.
Known for spreading the Good News, LifePoint Church’s lead pastor, Nathan Sanders, was thrilled to don a Mandalorian costume and participate in the Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter’s second annual Bed Race & Family Festival Oct. 17.
“The Bed Race was a great opportunity to mobilize our church to raise money for an organization that we absolutely love,” Sanders said. “Good Neighbor does so much in our community to help out those who need it the most.
“Our bed was made to look like Baby Yoda’s floating pod from ‘The Mandalorian,’” he said, referring to the Disney Plus television series. “Four of us dressed as Mandalorians and pushed the bed. Aaron Whipple dressed up as Baby Yoda and rode in the bed as we raced.”
LifePoint Church’s Star Wars crew captured two awards in the Bed Race’s group division: Winner of the Race and the team that generated the most funds for Good Neighbor. Sanders’ teammates included Kellen Owenby, worship pastor; Avery Varnell, kids pastor; Lance Herst, connections pastor; and Whipple, students pastor.
“We had a lot of fun preparing for the race, building and decorating the bed and filming videos that promoted our fundraising efforts,” Sanders said. “Our original goal for fundraising was $5,000. Because of the generosity of our friends and supporters, we raised over $7,300 for Good Neighbor.
“We talked about the Bed Race at our Sunday gatherings, we posted on Facebook about it, and we made a funny documentary-style video that raised a lot of awareness for the Bed Race and Good Neighbor on social media. Our favorite part was honestly just to be able to raise $7,300 for such an amazing organization doing great things in our community, but it was also really fun to have some of the LifePoint Church family at the Bed Race having a blast and cheering us on.”
Currently the chairman, Sanders has served as a member of Good Neighbor’s board for three years. This leadership opportunity continues to be an eye-opening experience, as the Cartersville resident learns more about Good Neighbor and Bartow’s homeless population.
“When I started in this role, I knew that Good Neighbor was a great organization with incredible leadership providing services to our homeless population that were so desperately needed,” Sanders said. “However, over the last three years, I’ve been completely astonished at just how much Good Neighbor does. At LifePoint, we don’t believe in recreating the wheel every time we see a need.
“We love to identify local organizations who are already doing amazing things and putting our weight behind their efforts. Our staff recently had lunch with Justin [Greene], the [Good Neighbor] outreach director, and he told us story after story of people who were homeless and jobless who are now working a steady job and living in their own apartment. It’s absolutely incredible the lengths their staff goes to in order to help those in a time of desperate need.”
Formed in 1996, the Good Neighbor has served more than 8,400 people since its inception. Like the organization’s largest benefit, Cartersville Dances With the Stars, the Bed Race & Family Festival helped bolster awareness and funds for the nonprofit. This year’s event generated $38,178 after expenses.
“We just had nine teams this year, which is a few less than last year,” Good Neighbor Executive Director Jessica Mitcham said. “But they raised significantly more than we did last year, so we’re thrilled.
“The event is for families and for groups to do together,” she said, adding she wanted the Bed Race “to feel very kid-friendly, so that families really had a way to start conversations with their kids about other kids who they likely see at school who struggle.”
In addition to LifePoint, the Bed Race’s competitors included New Beginning Signs, SOS Mattress and Southern Cove; and the families of Lindsey Redden and Lon Watson, Jody and Heather Smith, Bobby and Emily Walker, Jared and Shira Whatley, and Matt and Caroline Womack.
Winning awards, along with LifePoint Church, were group division —Southern Cove, Best Costumes and Decorations; and families division — the Whatleys, Best Costumes and Decorations; the Reddens, Winner of the Race; and the Walkers collected the most funds for Good Neighbor with $8,176.
For Redden, winning the 100-yard race at Dellinger Park’s track was a thrilling experience.
“We did not practice for the Bed Race and winning was so much fun because we did not expect it,” she said. “During the race, we could see we were ahead, swerving all over the place — sorry to the other teams — and Lon kept saying ‘keep running, push harder.’ It was the most fun we have had running a race as a family.”
Along with her 10-year-old daughter, Macie Leigh Mosteller, Redden’s Trolls-inspired entry featured her friend, Allie Seagle, boyfriend, Lon Watson, and his 6-year-old daughter, Shelby Anne Watson. Starting with a wooden bed frame, The Reddens team recreated Troll’s Village with a rainbow of balloons, hand-drawn characters from the movie and each participant wore bright clothing topped with a colorful plume of Troll hair.
“Good Neighbor has impacted so many lives and we wanted to be a small part of that,” Redden said. “The race was our favorite part. Never expecting to win and then being able to come in first place.
“The girls were over the moon to go up and get our trophy. Smiles from ear to ear!”
Recognized for their personalized decorations, the Whatleys’ theme highlighted the family’s numerous felines. The Cartersville couple was joined by their three children: Harrison Rozier, 13, Blakely Stein, 8, and Olivia Whatley, 7.
“Our bed was themed ‘Cool Cats and Kittens,’ and it was a house with over 25 cats peeking out the windows. We got inspiration from Carole Baskin’s character from ‘Tiger King,’ but adapted it to represent our own family.
“We have eight cats at our house, and we like to consider ourselves a crazy cat family. We were very excited that all our hard work paid off and the girls were ecstatic about winning a trophy.”
Echoing Mitcham’s comments, Mrs. Whatley enjoyed being able to partake in this benefit with her family and highlight the importance of serving Bartow’s homeless.
“We thought it would be a great way for us and our children to get involved and help the community,” she said. “It also gave us an opportunity to explain homelessness to our children, and to better understand ways that we can help others.”
Over the years, the Good Neighbor has expanded its reach in Cartersville. The nonprofit now features two shelters, a transitional housing program and a street outreach.
On average, its 4,600-square-foot shelter on Porter Street that was built in 2001 assists about 600 individuals per year. While they are housed, Good Neighbor’s guests are required to find a job within four weeks, and the shelter’s staff helps them establish savings, focus on problem-solving skills and chart out future housing options.
“Between the two shelters, we’re serving 45 people a day,” Mitcham said. “That’s generally about eight or 10 kids, and then a lot of single adults. We have a married couple here with a 2-month-old right now that was living in their car before they found us. That mom and dad showed up last week. They already both have jobs, and they take turns going to work and taking care of their 2-month-old baby.
“We have 11 units of transitional housing. All of those are families with children. There are a total of 36 individuals that live in that program and 24 of them are kids. So in total, we are serving 80 people a day, and that usually includes about 30 kids and 50 adults that would not have anywhere else to go if our programs did not exist. All of them are working to get back on their feet.”
Continuing to operate in the midst of COVID-19, Mitcham underscored the importance of presenting Cartersville Dances With the Stars, which raised $287,000, prior to the pandemic lockdown and the opening of the Townsley Drive shelter.
“We had our ribbon cutting at our new shelter on Feb. 27, and we opened it on Friday the 28th and two weeks later the entire world shut down,” she said. “If I had known, if our board had known that was looming, I don’t know what we would have done. I don’t know what we would have decided. It certainly means that the need for the shelter is even more critical. It also certainly means having two shelters open 24 hours a day and staffing them was extremely challenging.
“I’ve said to everybody who was involved in this year’s Dances With the Stars event, if we had lost that event, the new shelter — we probably at some point in the last six months would have had to close it for a while and had to figure out how in the world to sustain the cost of staff to reopen it. So the timing of opening that shelter and then getting that event completed before all of that happened, the significance of that, there’s no way for me to understate.”
Right now, Mitcham noted the number of people her organization is serving is holding steady, even compared to their operations before COVID-19.
“We talk to a lot of people every month,” she said. “We probably on the average month still talk to between 200 and 250 people that need our services and we don’t have beds available when they call. So there’s still a huge need.
“We’ve not seen that number go up much because the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] stepped in with a moratorium on evictions. … Right now the standing moratorium expires on Dec. 31. If that does in fact happen and that’s when courts begin to issue evictions — whenever that occurs, whether that’s on Jan. 1 or whether there’s another extension, at whatever point that evictions start to go out — that’s when we expect for the numbers of those in need to go up a lot.”
Depending on the public for support, Mitcham extends thanks to those who continue to rally around the Good Neighbor with in-kind gifts, financial donations and actively taking part in the nonprofit’s fundraisers.
“We get some government grants but we would not even begin to be able to offer the programs we have if that was our only revenue that came into our organization,” she said. “So Good Neighbor is truly only here because this community takes good care of it and loves it and supports it and fights for it. Every time we have people involved in our events that are willing to ask friends and family to give and help support the things we do, we are enormously thankful, because that’s the only way that our programs exist here.”
For more information about the Good Neighbor, visit the nonprofit’s website, www.goodneighborshelter.org, or Facebook page.