On Oct. 7, 2018, Isella Gallesi, from Athens, Georgia, runs around the pumpkin patch as she chooses which one to take home. Milledge Baptist Church holds its annual pumpkin patch sale where proceeds go to the local community. Located off South Milledge, it’s opened everyday from 2 p.m.-8 p.m.  (Photo by Daniela Rico; dr11576@uga.edu)

When driving down South Milledge Avenue, you can enjoy the changing colors of the autumn leaves, grab a fall-themed drink from Jittery Joe’s and stop for a visit at the Pumpkin Church.

The affectionate nickname has become an identifying trait for Milledge Avenue Baptist Church and it has embraced the name whole-heartedly. It even has a small sign at the entrance to the patch with “Welcome to the Pumpkin Church” painted on.

Ginny Dempsey, associate pastor for students, thinks The Pumpkin Church brings the church closer together and has become a tradition for the town.

“This year I talked to a husband and wife and their children. They came here on their first date and now they come back every year with their kids,” Dempsey said. “It’s really become kind of a staple in the area.”

There is some debate as to when the church started selling pumpkins 13 or 14 years ago. However, there is no debate about how much the patch has grown over those years, Dempsey said.

The first year, the church started with just enough pumpkins to fill a quarter of a semi-truck. Now, the church receives three full semi-trucks throughout their selling season.

Unloading a semi-truck with pumpkins stacked floor to ceiling is no small feat. That’s why many groups from the church’s “adopted” school, Clarke Central High School, help them unload, along with the University of Georgia Army ROTC and a few Christian organizations on campus, Dempsey said.

Wilson Griffeth, a 13-year-old student at Clarke Middle School, helps unload the truck after the church service on Sundays. To make the unloading a little more fun, Griffeth and his brother stacked pumpkins in various places around the patch. One stack was even as tall as Griffeth, however, many of the stacks are gone because the pumpkins were sold.

All of the church’s pumpkins come from Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, a pumpkin farm on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Farmington, New Mexico. The company works with churches and nonprofits around the country to provide “quality fundraisers,” according to its mission statement.

The company grows two square miles of pumpkins and employs over 700 Native Americans during the September and October harvest season. There’s also a full-time off-season staff made up entirely of Native Americans, which has a large impact on a region with a 42% unemployment rate, according to the Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers website.

Dempsey got the chance to go to New Mexico to see where the pumpkins are grown and see the church’s trucks get loaded and was awestruck by the sheer size and scale of the operation. When she saw the field she was curious how many rows it would take to fill one of the church’s trucks.

“They said, oh it won’t even take one row. I was like uh-huh. [It took] half of one row,” Dempsey said.

The Pumpkin Church doesn’t pay for any of the pumpkins upfront. Instead, Pumpkin Patch Fundraisers, asks for 60% of the church’s gross sales. This way the church is not liable for any rotted or unsold pumpkins, Dempsey said.

The money from the first pumpkin patch was used to fund a youth mission trip to Puerto Rico. Now, the earnings go towards many programs within the church along with the youth programs.

Griffith went on a youth trip to Doraville, Georgia where he played with kids from lower-income families during the summer. He liked the mission trip for the same reason he likes volunteering at the pumpkin patch: he gets to talk to people.

While he volunteers at the patch Griffith likes learning what people plan to do with the pumpkins they buy. His younger sister likes to take an unconventional approach to her pumpkin and melt crayons so the colors drip down the sides. However, Griffith personally likes to carve a classic jack-o-lantern with triangle eyes and a snaggle-toothed smile.

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