Helping as many as he can as long as he can
Rev. Sam Tharpe has given so much to the community, whether it is teaching children or organizing Thanksgiving Day meals
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By Natalie Gray  December 27, 2013 12:00 am

“My main goal is helping people,” said Reverend Sam Tharpe of his many deeds he’s done for the community. The man truly has done it all, and all that he has done has been for the benefit of others. 

Tharpe founded his own church, has coached football, taught history at a multitude of local schools, opened his own school for at-risk youths and, of course, created, organized and worked an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the needy that grew big enough to serve 35 turkeys. The latter event has been occurring every Thanksgiving for the past 25 years at the Rohnert Park Community Center, providing a full Thanksgiving meal – carved turkey, dressing and all – to those in need in the community, or anyone looking for a nice meal.


Dinners build tradition

The event always seemed to do more than provide meals; the dinners created a tradition and brought together a community, one made up of volunteers, helpers, diners and friends.

“A lot of people are lonely,” says Tharpe, “(the dinners) bring people together to help the community.”

This last Thanksgiving, though, Tharpe has decided will be his final one hosting and organizing the turkey feed. Not because of the stress or lack of funds or even because he no longer finds joy in the event. According to Tharpe, the reason lies in the fact that he feels the time is just right to stop; he said he is tired and, happily, is about to become a grandfather. A little bit more time to focus on family and relax even a tiny bit might be sounding pretty nice. 

Tharpe came to Rohnert Park in 1969, having grown up in Florida. He traveled across the country to the small town with a scholarship to Sonoma State University to play football (something that might seem a little strange to consider now, given the school’s almost 18 year lack of the sport). He graduated with a degree in Psychology and moved permanently to Rohnert Park in 1978. He taught in the Petaluma school district, where he was the first African American person to be hired, said Tharpe.

“If you’re an educator, you like to be around people and help them,” he said. Tharpe said he had always wanted to be an educator and that he went to school with the hope of one day graduating to be able to teach children. The evidence that he enjoys the position shows in his actions.


Teaching and coaching

In Petaluma and then in Rohnert Park, Tharpe taught history and later, he taught Psychology at the Santa Rosa and Contra Costa junior colleges. He coached football a little bit of everywhere, from the local high school to SSU before the team was disbanded. He also worked some time in the Vallejo school district, where he won the Teacher of the Year Award in 2000, an accomplishment that Tharpe considers one of his best (along with his four football championships). In 1985, Tharpe opened a school, T’s Academy, for at-risk kids or, as Tharpe put it, “To help youth that no one wanted…to work with these kids. We were able to save some lives…” 

The school ran until 1995. Tharpe also opened a church, originally founded in his own house that has been open for 23 years now.

“(I’m) just a man who’s trying to help,” said Tharpe. “Not trying to get any glory, just trying to help the people; making sure God’s work is getting done.”

Tharpe’s wife, Joy, has also has been an educator for 43 years and has been with Tharpe and his community work every step of the way. For example, she made the dressing for the Thanksgiving dinners). 

Tharpe also noted that he, of course, did not create all his events and work them on his own and that he, his events and all those helped owe much to those who volunteered and lent a helping hand throughout the years.

“Everybody over the years has helped us with something,” said Tharpe. “The time, the donations, the servers – the mayor and his wife (Rohnert Park’s Joseph and Janet Callinan) have helped for over 15 years (with the Turkey Dinner). Giving back to the community, that’s what it’s all about.” 

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