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Aiken County's service with a smile

Local volunteers a big piece of what sets Peach Jam apart

  • Updated
  • 3 min to read

Teams from all over the country with players from all walks of life have been taking residence in Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta since Wednesday, vying for the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League championship title.

While spectators are yearning for a chance to get a peek at NBA stars and players are getting noticed by college coaches, North Augusta residents are behind the scenes, making sure the players and coaches get a warm welcome and some Southern hospitality during their visit.

Volunteers from First Baptist Church and TrueNorth Church – around 150 of them – come back year after year to serve food.

The Peach Jam is the only stop on the circuit where players get fed at the tournament, said Mike Chavous with North Augusta Parks and Recreation, adding the best part about the service is the kids get to see a smiling face.

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Emily Roddy, right, serves lunch to college coaches and staff during the Nike Peach Jam. 

This is Verne Rushton's 21st year working Peach Jam hospitality. He said it's amazing how over the three or so days, the kids will open up, starting with a simple "thank you" during the first couple of meals but opening up by the end, talking about what games they're playing and their lives.

The Peach Jam introduces players from other parts of the United States to Southern hospitality and with it another well-known Southern institution: sweet tea.

"Last night, none of them had ever (drank) sweet tea," Rushton said. "Then all of a sudden they had a sip of sweet tea and wanted the whole thing."

Rick Meyer, director of parks, recreation and tourism for the city, said the hospitality and food began around the second year of the Peach Jam, now in its 24th year.

"It just started with First Baptist Church. The church raised donations to provide the food and Nike saw how good a deal that was and loved it so much they said 'You know what, you continue to provide the servant attitude, we'll provide the funding for the food,'" Meyer said.

Terri Chavous, who has been volunteering at the tournament for around eight years, said a lot of the kids ask why they volunteer to help feed them.

"I say 'Because we love you, we want to make you feel at home,'" she said.

Rushton said by law, the volunteers aren't allowed to preach to the kids, but if the kids ask, they can respond.

"And when they ask the question 'Why do y'all do this?' I say 'Well this is how we show Christian love,'" he said.

"Every year, at least one – most of the time it's 10 or 15 – want to know and we are able to witness to them because they've asked and because they've never experienced anything like this."

Downstairs, where the kids are fed, and upstairs, where the college coaches are fed, doughnuts and peaches are a popular item.

Mike said his first stop every day of the tournament is Krispy Kreme for 30 dozen doughnuts, and before the start of the tournament, volunteers spend time peeling peaches from Edgefield County.

"The kids love the peaches," Meyer said, "but I'm going to be honest with you, the college coaches love them more than they players do. I'll pick one out in general: (University of North Carolina's) Roy Williams will eat peaches on anything and everything while he's here."

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Volunteers from TrueNorth Church and First Baptist Church have spent the week preparing food for the Peach Jam players and college coaches. 

On the second floor of Riverview Park, more volunteers spend time serving those college coaches who have migrated to North Augusta to watch prospective platers.

Thursday morning, hundreds of sandwiches – handmade by volunteers – were ready, waiting for a rush of hungry coaches to get their fill.

Jean Morris, who helps in the coaches room, said they want the coaches to feel welcome when they come to North Augusta.

She and husband Swain come back year after year to help serve to let people know what their hometown is about.

"North Augusta's a very hospitable place. Good ol' Southern hospitality," she said.

"A lot of the coaches tell us too, out of everywhere they go, they enjoy this more than anything just because the way it's handled and just the servant attitude we have. And they enjoy the food, too," Swain said.

Southern hospitality and that servant attitude do more than just feed players and coaches.

"Any time you're a servant, it's self-rewarding," Meyer said.

The players who come to Peach Jam come to change their world with their talent, height and their skill, Meyer said.

"The volunteers from the church … they're trying to change their world through their heart, being a servant to them, by giving them love and attention that maybe they don't get everyday. And that's a big deal and we are so appreciative of what they do."

Lindsey Hodges is a general assignment reporter at the Aiken Standard and North Augusta Star. Follow her on Twitter at @LindseyNHodges.