Old and young. Male and female. Asian and Hispanic. College educated and high school educated.

A wide range of personalities, religions, races, genders and beliefs were brought in with the 600 attendants of Thursday’s third annual Festival of United Cultures dinner.

But, when they walked out of the main building of the Walker County Fairgrounds, they all had one thing in common — they had spent one evening together, learning about each other, from each other.

“One of the reasons we organized this dinner in the first place was to try to recognize and embrace the differences we have in this little community,” said David Prier, president of the Huntsville Diversity Forum. “In our area, we have gender, racial, cultural and religious differences, and we’re all here tonight because we want to see those differences and be glad for them.”

According to event organizer Mary Novark, the diversity dinner was first held on Feb. 16, 2006 as an effort to bring all of the different cultures of Huntsville together for food and fellowship.

“The hope of holding this event is that people leave educated about the types of neighbors they have and the services available in our community,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for people to come out and meet other residents they would have no way of knowing otherwise.

“Besides, where else could you go for friends, food and entertainment for free?”

An important detail integrated into the diversity dinner, Novark said, was the group of informational booths set up by local organizations.

Groups, including the Walk-er County Sheriff’s Depart-ment, the Tall Pines Quilt Guild, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, CASA of Walker County, several churches and other non-profit organizations handed out information to those in attendance.

“Through our presence here tonight, we’re hoping to let the community know that we’re here for them no matter what their religion, beliefs or background,” CASA representative Lacy True said. “With all of the groups here tonight, I think people will get a really good picture of the kind of community they have all around them.”

As compared to years past, Novark said she set up the diversity dinner a little differently this year.

“We wanted all of our exhibitors to have more visitors this year, so we changed the layout this year and had people walk by them first,” she said. “I think the exhibitors are getting more exposure this year, and I’ve gotten very positive reactions about their presentations.”

In addition to the community presentation booths, several members of the recent Huntsville Superstar competition performed songs.

Also, groups, including the Ballet Folklorico Youth, the Ballet Folklorico Kids and the Young Gifted and Talented Christian Group, gave short performances.

“I think a lot of the people find it interesting to see such different traits of the community here,” Prier said. “We begin with a friendship dinner, which is great because people can show off their spicy and interesting sides through the dishes they prepare.

“Then, we have youth performances which further illustrate our community’s aspects. The youth are actually one of the most important parts of this event, and we try to stress that when we’re organizing this event.”

Altogether, Novark said the major goal for the diversity dinner was to create new lines of communication between any and all kinds of people in the area.

“We’ve got to come together to have our world succeed, and what we do this for is to see people meeting and talking,” she said. “In his opening prayer, Prier said to the audience, ‘If you see somebody that’s like you, turn around and hug them. Also, if you see someone that’s not like you, turn around and hug them.’

“I’m very happy to look around and see all kinds of people laughing and talking together. That was the point.”