By John Cooper Lawton
Carly Cotten can be found at the same place nearly every Tuesday at 4 p.m. – having dinner with 80 of her closest friends at More Than a Meal.
More Than a Meal is a nonprofit organization that strives to give a hot meal to underprivileged families once a week, while tending to other needs. After volunteering with the organization for three years, Cotten has become a vital part of its operation.
“When she kept coming back and back again, she started seeing the guests and recognizing the guest,” said Daniel Howie, board president of More Than a Meal. “And then, she started to show this passion for wanting to do more with More Than a Meal.”
Cotten handles the toiletry donations for the organization. She hands out items such as toothpaste, shampoo or toilet paper to families that request it.
“Carly just kinda stepped up and took that,” Howie said. “She came in never having served with us before, and then taking a leadership role by being there, being interested and being active. It has been very rewarding for me to see her grow into that.”
Howie has relied on Cotten in stressful times. More Than a Meal has done numerous toiletry drives with Greek organizations on campus. These drives have been known to bring in truckloads of supplies. Cotten is able to single-handedly manage that and the guests.
“She has done a variation of that on numerous occasions because that is kinda how it goes down,” Howie said. “Just the way she handles a curveball like that in an intense situation is very impressive. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
More Than a Meal offers many things that underprivileged families may need. Cotten takes this a step further, making sure the children have a role model and are taught manners.
“It’s fun to teach the kids manners,” Cotten said. “I always make sure they say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am’.”
Cotten knows firsthand what it feels like to not be accepted, which is why she tries to make the guests feel like family.
Seven years ago, the nerves and muscles in her throat stopped working. She had eight surgeries before she had a tracheotomy tube implanted. She said More Than a Meal has been one of the few places that she does not receive strange looks.
“I accept them for how they are, and they do the same,” Cotten said. “They look past me having a trach.”
Her efforts to make the program a loving and accepting environment have been successful.
“All the kids know Carly,” Howie said. “When Carly comes into the room, you’ve got five or six kids running up to give her a hug. She’s connected with those families.”
Cotten’s favorite part of More Than a Meal has been the relationships she has developed. She said many good friends have come from there.
“I have a whole other family there,” Cotten said. “It brings people with different backgrounds together.”
According to Cotten, More Than a Meal has been a huge part of her life and has changed her for the better.
“It puts life into perspective,” Cotten said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s definitely made me a better person.”
Material items matter less to Cotten after seeing guests at More Than a Meal who are struggling over things many people take for granted.
“A lot of people stress over the next pair of shoes, but some of these people stress over the next meal,” Cotten said.
Cotten said she tells everyone she knows to come to More Than a Meal. She has even been known to bring her parents when they are in town.
“She pulls in so many people,” Howie said. “She’s a huge advocate for More Than a Meal.”
Cotten will graduate from Ole Miss at the end of the spring semester, and she said she will likely not come back to Oxford. However, she plans on staying involved with organizations like More Than a Meal regardless of where the future takes her.
“I could see myself wherever I wind up volunteering in an organization like that or starting one,” Cotten said. “I think every town should have it.”
More Than a Meal often has been the highlight of the week for Cotten, and she plans on keeping it that way.
“I look forward to every Tuesday at four to see the people,” Cotten said.