Taste of Wilson highlights the best of our community

Beth Petty

As is the case many nights for this slightly aging, but still full of energy and creativity woman, last night I found it hard to sleep. It was a combination of sheer exhaustion and total elation! Taste of Wilson has been a longtime favorite event for many of us, but this year it meant so much more.

Wednesday night, as Lebanon Wilson County Chamber of Commerce board members, we were sent an SOS. Due to scheduling changes regarding impending inclement weather, replacement student volunteers were needed to make sure the event would be its usual success. I immediately forwarded the email to the very best of the best, our Lebanon Special School District staff and a handful of our parents, and within a couple of hours, the volunteers needed were in place, filled by sixth- through eighth-grade students composed of BETA Club members, Kindness Cadets and members of the LSSD Family and Community Engagement Advisory Council. Chamber board members had also secured several equally qualified and delightful high school students to assist for the night.

When the student volunteers arrived, a couple of them expressed some trepidation in serving for the night. Chamber Education Chairman Curt Baker, briefed students with details on what to expect for the night, and they relaxed.

Helping us mentor the group for the night was Chamber Board Chairman-elect, Greg Butler, who is one of the most highly effective, yet gentle, professionals you will ever meet. He eased any remaining tension the students might have. Before the event started, we watched students organize stations, introduce themselves to other volunteers and to those in charge, and gather the materials they would need for the night. For more than four hours, student volunteers exhibited the working together skills taught to them by their parents, school staff, advisers and our community stakeholders -- skills that will be needed as these students enter the workforce, skills that we hope to instill in our systemwide Be Kind LSSD initiative.

Toward the end of the event, one of the students who had expressed that he was a little nervous about the night, excitedly shared with me, "I am either really tired, or my confidence has really gone up tonight!"

That emotionally honest statement is one only a young person would make, and in a huge room in the expo center, surrounded by a sea of people and hustle and bustle, it stopped me in my tracks!

I walked around the room and saw the student artwork LSSD and Wilson County Schools art teachers submitted, including 3-D donuts and hand designed clay coffee mugs, in keeping with the Taste of Wilson theme for all the wonderful samples ticket holders were there to enjoy. I saw our Neon Bus and Kindness Care-a-Van, and the new Wilson County Literacy Bus, vehicles school systems use use to both feed and educate our students. I thought about all the money and energy the community is dedicated to providing to make sure these projects continue to be successful. I saw our SACC after-school program employees with materials spread out on tables so that young attendees could make kindness bracelets. On the Neon bus were two of our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher leaders and they were engaging young people in projects related to those topics.

I saw both our county and city mayors who always support education! Both asked if we needed anything. I saw our beloved LSSD leader, Scott Benson, who looks forward to serving as a "grill master" each year, and who immediately gave me several samples of his perfectly seasoned chicken strips, hot off the new indoor grills our dignitaries were using in their friendly cook-off competition.

Next, I saw our assistant director of schools, Becky Kegley, who was so proud of how our students were representing our school system. All around me were systems of support for our students and their families -- our Hometown Heroes -- The Lebanon Fire Department, Lebanon Police Department, and Wilson County Sheriff's Department. There was the Wilson County Books from Birth Table, with Peggy Simpson, who tirelessly makes sure children get one of their earliest samples of education, with a monthly book arriving at their home. The brand new Middle Tennessee Electric Grilled Cheese Cart was there and I thought about all the Sharing Change Grants that have been awarded in Wilson County that directly support our students.

And finally, I looked around and saw a myriad of faces of co-workers, our never tiring, and always inspiring LSSD teachers! Most of them had made the event into a Girl's Night Out and were laughing and eating and telling me to check their teeth before I snapped their photo! Several of them have been recipients or hope to be this year, of the Chamber Teacher Grants that the Taste of Wilson proceeds fund.

At the end of my reflective last lap for the evening, it was time to start cleaning up. I saw chamber staff members, Melanie, Andrea and Tonya, and board Chair Necole Bell and her husband, Rick start amping it up. Our student volunteers followed their example and gathered up the final trash, tore down tables and chairs, and asked what they could do next … wow! Many of them thanked me for allowing them to be part of a night that they said was a really fun chance for them to serve, and yes, my young friend, what an opportunity it was for all of us to increase our confidence after such a success!

Then came the second comment that caused me to pause for the evening. Greg Butler said that if these students were the face of the future of Wilson County, we were truly blessed and in really good shape!

So, lying awake and musing over an incredible event, Taste of Wilson morphed into a much larger vision of the very best place in the world with the very best people in the world who all work together to make sure we keep it that way!

Beth Petty is Family Resource Center director and community relations manager for the Lebanon Special School District and a member of the Lebanon Wilson County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

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