Several officers from the Aiken Department of Public Safety on Thursday put down their badges and handcuffs and picked up spoons and plates to take part in the annual Thanksgiving dinner at the Smith-Hazel Recreation Center.

The dinner, put on by the Palmetto State Law Enforcement Officers Association, occurs each year a week before Thanksgiving and serves “senior citizens and the handicapped,” according to Vernell Williams, secretary and treasurer for the Aiken County chapter of PSLEOA.

The organization began in 1961 and has a chapter in each county of the state, according to Williams. In addition to educating people and attracting criminal justice students around the state, the organization offers scholarship money for first-year students, puts on events such as the Thanksgiving dinner and visits the sick and elderly.

About a dozen Public Safety officers, as well as officers from probation and parole and the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, were on hand to prepare and serve the food. Sgt. Jake Mahoney has been taking part in the event for 15 years.

“It strengthens the bond between our community and our citizens, and gives us an opportunity to interact and build positive relationships,” he said. “We’re a service-oriented department, and we are committed to establishing and maintaining the positive relationships within the community. Those relationships are mutually beneficial.”

The association members began preparing the feast – enough food for 250 people – on Wednesday. Williams said she was pleased with Thursday’s turnout.

“Each year it increases,” she said. “Some people probably won’t have family to be with next Thursday, so they had their Thanksgiving.”

“It lets them know law enforcement is there, period, whenever you need them and for whatever,” she said. “Most of the time, people think when something happens, that’s the only time you see law enforcement. We do this to let you know we’re visible even without any crimes going on.”

Gospel music played on a sound system Thursday. Yvonne Wright sat alone at a table but received a hug and some kind words from Sherry Cheatham, a volunteer who also works at the Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons.

“She was listening to a song and said she’s really, really thankful for some things that she’s been given in her life,” Cheatham said. “I didn’t know what was wrong, but I saw something was wrong when she was there by herself.”

Wright said she has an upcoming hip replacement procedure that she’s been putting off for two years.

“I’m just grateful I’ve made up my mind to get it done,” she said with tears welling in her eyes. “I know that God’s gonna do what needs to be done. The song just reminded me that he’s in charge.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.