By Kathy Jefcoats
Carrying two orange plastic buckets filled with Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers, the 4-year-old boy makes his way through throngs of people who reach out to tousle his dark brown hair and smile at him.
He is mostly oblivious to the attention. He is intent on finding his friends, snagging an ice cream bar and slurping a soda. Women he doesn't know grab him for a quick hug and kiss. Men pat him on the back and walk on.
David Tippin has been the focus of Henry County residents since Sunday morning, when his parents, Robert and Stacey Tippin, woke to find their back door open and him gone. For two days, they didn't know if they'd ever see him again, but left his return home in God's hands and the hands of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom were strangers to the Tippins.
Those volunteers and other searchers were honored with a picnic supper Wednesday night at the family's church home, Acts Church of Henry County on Ga. Highway 42. The picnic was provided by Wal-Mart of Stockbridge.
"He's been overwhelmed by the crowds but this church is home to him, familiar," Robert Tippin said.
David is 4, so most conversations with him involve simple yes or no responses.
Is he excited about starting school Monday?
Does he like goldfish crackers?
Is that ice cream bar good?
But those who waited on pins and needles for his safe return home have plenty to say, especially mom Stacey.
"He was sound asleep this morning," she said about his first day back at home. "It was absolutely wonderful to wake up and find him in his own bed. It was a far cry from the previous two mornings. But for him, it's like nothing's ever happened."
Like a beacon from heaven, the floodlights from an unoccupied rental home led Bobby Hinton, 70, to David Tuesday morning. The lost boy was found asleep on a blanket in front of the refrigerator in the house on Miller's Mill Road, less than a mile from his own home.
For volunteers such as Lee Chambers of Stockbridge, it was an answer to the prayers of the community.
"I was in tears," Chambers said. "I broke down and cried. Everybody's got a heart, regardless of what they look like."
Chambers looks like a biker, his bald head covered with a flaming orange and black do-rag that is, until David spots it. Chambers takes it off his head and David puts it on his own, drawing laughter from those around him.
Chambers like many of the volunteers didn't know the Tippins until Monday.
"I didn't know them," he said. "But I've got two kids of my own and I couldn't imagine having one of my children gone and not having the community involved and looking. I took off and did what I could do."
For two days with temperatures that topped 90 degrees with humidity that made it feel in the 100s, volunteers searched high and low for the boy. Stacey Tippin said not knowing where he was was the hardest part of waiting.
"I prayed to God, ?Whatever happens, happens, just let us know,'" she said. "Someone could be hurting David, molesting him. It was just killing me. It was not easy but we put faith in God's hands."
While the Tippins and their church family had spiritual faith in his return, Chambers wasn't as convinced.
"I thought about the worse that could happen but I didn't expect it," he said. "I was raised to be optimistic and expect the unexpected."
Stockbridge Wal-Mart community involvement coordinator Shilah Cuello said associates were eager to honor volunteers who looked for a little boy they didn't even know.
"We thought the least we could do is give them a thank-you dinner," she said. "We're proud of this community and wanted to say thank you to them."
Cuello and about a dozen store associates lined up burgers and hot dogs with all the fixings, drinks, cake and watermelon in the church fellowship hall.
"When I heard what they were going to do, I burst out crying," Stacey Tippin said. "Everyone has gone above and beyond what was expected of them."
Stacey said she knows a lot of people didn't expect David to be found safe.
"I think that's why there's been such an incredible response from people, because it could've turned out tragically," she said. "It so easily could have ended tragically."
Shelly Johnson, community involvement coordinator at the McDonough Wal-Mart, credited Terri Green for getting Wal-Mart involved. Green is director of advancement at Pregnancy Resource Center in Henry County and is accustomed to contacting the community for fund-raisers for the nonprofit center.
"She called and said they needed water and ice for the volunteers," Johnson said. "Then she called and said they needed food. She deserves credit for organizing a lot of this."
Like Chambers, Green said she got involved because she and husband Joseph have a 4-year-old son, Josh.
"Our son is what triggered us to volunteer," Terri Green said. "My husband called at 7:30 Monday morning to tell me about him being missing and said we have to do something. I called Wal-Mart and got in my truck and went there and picked up water and coolers and brought them back to the fire station."
Volunteers were organized at Henry County Fire Department Station 3. When firefighters walked into the church fellowship hall Wednesday night, they got a standing ovation.
"It is just such a blessing," Stacey Tippin said. "We couldn't have gotten through this without the help of our wonderful friends and neighbors, and the people we didn't know before this who became instant friends. It's just amazing."