Where are you this Thanksgiving in America? Or maybe you are overseas and cannot make the trip home. Options are always a wonderful thing when it comes to the holidays, especially if you cannot make it home. I've chosen to go home for Christmas and New Years this year and spend a quiet day at home for Turkey Day. I was invited to a couple of places, but it's not home.
But what if you were invited home, but just didn't want to go ? Tommy Arnold lived that and he and his friends saw that happening to local college students in his community. They didn't want to go home because they were living two lives, one at college and one at home.
For many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, college is a home away from home where they can come out and be themselves for the first time. But for some, going back home for Thanksgiving means going back in the closet.
That was Tommy Arnold's experience in college, and he doesn't want it to be anyone else's.
The big-hearted realtor from Kentucky is the founder of Feast on Equality, a nonprofit that helps LGBTQ college students and at-risk LGBTQ youth in the state. Arnold knew he was gay since he was about 7 years old but was afraid to come out in the small rural town where he grew up. When he was in high school in the late 1990s, he couldn't wait to go away to college so he could finally be himself.
"It was like I always had this dirty secret that I didn't even know what it meant, and as I got older and was about to graduate from high school, it was like, 'OK, we're going to go up to college and we're going to deal with this,'" he said.
Arnold eventually came out to his family while he was a student at the University of Kentucky. He said some in his family struggled with it in the beginning, and his own discomfort prevented him from bringing boyfriends home for the holidays.
"It was just very difficult because we all have social pressures that we have to deal with, and I never want to disappoint family or anything like that, and I think sometimes at least here in my part of the world, being LGBT is not necessarily something to be proud of," he said.
By 2008, Arnold was an out and proud gay man living in Louisville and pursuing a career in real estate. Around the same time, his friend Brian Buford, who worked for the University of Louisville, opened an LGBT Center at the school. Some of the students had been shunned by their parents and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving. Brian asked Arnold to help plan a dinner for them.
"I met with Brian and said 'Ok … what do they need right now?' And that's when he shared with me that there were about eight students that didn't have a home for Thanksgiving. And I told him that I didn't care if it was at his house or mine, but we were going to have a Thanksgiving meal for them," Arnold said. But the two friends didn't have a penny to put toward such a hefty feast. So Arnold just started asking around.
"As I ran into my friends, whether it was at the gym or out in public, or whatever, I was telling them about these students. I'm not the type of person who likes to ask for help, but they all chipped in and we bought a bunch of turkeys."
Arnold's mother and his best friend both helped prepare the dinner. "We cranked so much food out of our kitchen it was ridiculous," he said with a laugh.
As word spread about the feast, the number of LGBTQ students who planned to attend went from just a handful to more than 100—so many, Arnold said, they had to secure a venue on campus to hold them.
"We served 115 students that first year and more than 250 the following, and it's been about that ever since," he said.
But Arnold wasn't satisfied with just cooking turkey. – NBCNews.com
Well that was enough to make my eyes water and tear me up. If you want to see what Arnold did next, head over to NBCNews.com where we learn about hte creation of The Feast on Equality and how it has raised well over a half a million dollars, some of that money going to teaching medical students about the unique needs of LGBTQ patients, used to support the LGBT Center at the University of Louisville and students who are having financial problems. There's a lot more Arnold has accomplished as well as spreading his program to other colleges. Seriously, go over to NBCNews.com and you may tear up some more.
I'm a visual learner so here is a video from 2013 that will need more tissues.
It takes special people like Tommy Arnold to do special things. There was a problem and he solved it and in the process solved many more.