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Deputies make 'turkey stops' to brighten Thanksgiving
Velma Gilliard lets out a sigh of relief after realizing that Effingham County Sheriff's Office Deputy Danny Harrington was handing her a turkey instead of a traffic citation during a Nov. 20 stop on Hwy 21 near Springfield. Deputy Kristopher Withem, who stopped Gillard's vehicle, stands at left. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff
Getting a turkey is a lot better than getting a ticket.
Rincon resident Janet Edwards

RINCON — Deputy Kristopher Withem of the Effingham County Sheriff's Office approached the vehicle without a hint of generosity on his face. He sported the expression of a no-nonsense law enforcement veteran as he looked into the window on the driver's side.

Velma Gilliard and her stepdaughters — Zaria and Ivory Steele — nervously braced themselves after Withem told them that the tag on their car was missing. Fortunately for them, it was all a ruse. 

They got a turkey instead of a ticket.

Withem, in performances worthy of an Oscar, and other Effingham County deputies executed similar "turkey stops" on Nov. 19-20 in an effort to make Thanksgiving better for unsuspecting citizens. About 45 turkeys and all the trimmings, including sweet tea, were dispensed.

Gilliard and her stepdaughters can laugh heartily about getting stopped now. It wasn't funny initially, however.

Zaria Steele, a 17-year-old rookie driver, was at the control of Gilliard's vehicle on Nov. 20 when she looked back to see the flashing blue lights of Withem's car. Two more law enforcement vehicles — loaded with Thanksgiving supplies — followed closely behind on Hwy 21 near Springfield.

Despite having just a learner's license, Steele immediately pulled over to the right like a seasoned veteran. The rules of the road were fresh in her mind because she was slated to take a driving test at the Georgia State Patrol in a couple of hours. 

"I said, 'OK. You'd better obey the speed limit because you are being followed," Gilliard said, her voice rising as she explained her reaction to the situation. "I knew she wasn't doing anything wrong."

Gilliard was almost breathless while thanking the deputies for the gifts.

"I'm a little shaken," she said.

Zaria Steele said she was shaken, too — a lot.

"I've waiting to get my driver's license because I've been nervous about it," she said with a chuckle. "This didn't help."

Janet Edwards felt similarly after she got stopped by Withem — also for a missing tag — near her home in Rincon on Nov. 20.

"I almost had a heart attack," she said. "This is a pleasant surprise, especially after getting out of the car and seeing my license plate, and seeing all the deputies standing around. This comes at a good time.

"Getting a turkey is a lot better than getting a ticket."

Withem used a different tactic to nab turkey suspect Carolyn Jackson of Springfield. She was carrying a bag that contained a package of sausage as she exited a Rincon's Dollar Tree.

"He asked me if I paid for my stuff," Jackson said. "I'm like, 'OK.' Then he asked me if that was all I was getting — sausage — and I told him I was getting what I could get."

Jackson was startled by the blue lights.

"I like to have just did something else," she said with a laugh. "I'm jittery, you know? I'm on medication.

"I was thinking, 'What's this man stopping me for?'"

Jackson was grateful for the food and the opportunity to tell her husband about her good fortune and the unusual circumstances behind it.

"He's blind but he's going to like this here," she said. "I'm going to tell him that they are going to take me to jail just to see what kind of expression I can get out of him."

After eating Thanksgiving dinner at home, Jackson planned to visit a nephew and his family.

"They said bring a covered dish. I didn't have a turkey but I've got one now," she said.

The turkey stops, executed flawlessly by Max Barber and other deputies, are the brainchild of Capt. Pete Hossalla. He started them three years ago.

The "random of acts of kindness" — as Hossalla called them — aren't all by chance. Some people receive turkeys upon the recommendation of school resource officers who are aware of families in need.

Initially, the turkey stops were funded by Hossalla and other sheriff's office personnel. Growth in the program has prompted area businesses to get involved.

Realtor Tomi Coile of Keller Williams is a key contributor. The Guyton resident helped with multiple turkey stops this year.

 "It's really great to see how appreciative the people are, especially when you surprise them. They are shocked," she said.

A couple of Nov. 19 turkey recipients were stunned to the point that they were rendered virtually speechless. It wasn't until later that they expressed their gratitude.

"It was a delayed reaction but they were thankful," Coile said. "They just didn't know what to think. It really was nice."

A similar sheriff's office project is planned for Christmas.

"We'll be back out buying toys for families in need so that every child has at least one gift to open Christmas Day," she said. "The deputies are in tune with the community and see who really is in need."