Food for the soul

VIDEO: Saturday morning breakfast at the Bon Air. [2 min. 52 sec.]

Fred Cox cruised through the former ballroom of the once-grand Bon Air Hotel, nodding his way past early arrivals.


In 30 minutes, his volunteer kitchen crew would open the serving line for the weekly Saturday breakfast, a treat of eggs, biscuits, cheese grits and bacon for the elderly and disabled people who live in what is now a housing unit.

In the kitchen, Mr. Cox bantered with volunteer cook Percell Garvin, who was slowly stirring a pan of yellow liquid, minutes from having enough scrambled eggs to feed the 50 to 60 people who usually drop by.

Cooking for a crowd never bothers him. When his church, Friendship Baptist, had its own outreach breakfast, Mr. Garvin was on its egg detail.

"Some people like eggs soft, some like them hard and some somewhere in between. It is not too hard to judge it," Mr. Garvin said.

It was the Friendship breakfast that brought him and Mr. Cox together. They met when Mr. Cox's church, Trinity-on-the-Hill United Methodist, pitched in on the church breakfast with funding and volunteers.

The breakfast outreach ended when Friendship sold its property to make room for the Laney High School football stadium. The Bon Air opportunity opened a few months later.

As Walton Way makes the climb from the Medical Center to the Hill area, it cuts toward the Partridge Inn, then sweeps around a rise where the eight-story Bon Air stands, overlooking Augusta. A favorite attraction when it opened in the 1880s, the hotel was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in the 1920s. In recent years, it has provided low-income housing.

Marsha Jones, Trinity's director of outreach and mission, walked inside the Bon Air for the first time about 2 years ago.

"It was the perfect example of how things can look so nice on the outside, but when you go look on the inside, it was just awful and depressing and it stank," Mrs. Jones said. "The elevators were broken - it was just horrible."

With permission from the management, she and the Rev. Greg Hatfield, of Trinity, pulled cookies and coffee together for a Christmas party.

"We set up some tables and started singing Christmas carols. Some of the residents decided they wanted to sing. We had 50 to 75 folks who just hung out with us. It was wonderful," she said.

A second Bon Air event convinced Trinity it could do more there. By that time, the Friendship breakfast was on hold and Mr. Cox was looking for something to do. Mrs. Jones asked him to consider doing a breakfast outreach at the Bon Air. He agreed so long as he could do it his way.

He invited his friend Mr. Garvin to help him. They assembled a storage shed inside the building and began Saturday breakfasts in fall 2005.

Volunteers set up a kitchen near the former ballroom and used cardboard to patch the windows, Mr. Cox said.

"What was amazing last year, there was no heat, no light in that ballroom and they still came," he said. "It would be almost freezing. They ate in their coats."

Ambling Cos., of Valdosta, Ga., the manager of the Bon Air, bought the hotel and invested more than $4 million in renovations.

Work in the ballroom area kept the volunteers away from spring 2006 through last fall, long enough for Mr. Cox to drive to Alaska and back and make some leisurely side trips, he said.

When breakfast resumed, volunteers found quite a makeover: new windows, electrical work and fresh paint.

The residents have returned, sometimes bringing friends or family members.

Trinity volunteer Susan Miller enjoys the fellowship at the Bon Air, she said.

"The faces, the smiles - they are starting to interact with me. It is a real gift for them, but they give me a gift," she said. "That is why I like it."

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or



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