BRADENTON -- It was a chilly Thanksgiving Day Thursday, but the Salvation Army dining room was inviting and warm with steam and the scent of baked turkey and stuffing.
About 50 volunteers helped to serve the free meal, which was expected to attract between 400 and 500 people over several hours.
"We have a cool job serving cool drinks," said Erin Nielsen, 9, while parsing out lemonade in paper cups.
Erin's whole family, including sibling Logan, 13, and parents Carolyn and Tom Nielsen, gave up their own Thanksgiving meal to serve others.
Tom Nielsen, 44, a technology project manager from Parrish, said he hoped it would teach his children a lesson about the spiritual benefits of caring for others.
By volunteering, he and his family helped ensure plates were loaded with turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed po
tatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, dinner rolls and cranberry sauce. Different types of pies sat on a table at the rear of the building, at 1204 14th St. W., Bradenton.
Kitchen manager Brian Schultz fixed the following: 120 turkeys; 150 pounds of mashed potatoes; 100 pounds of sweet potatoes; 60 pounds of stuffing; 120 pounds of green beans; 20 pounds of cranberry sauce, 40 dozen rolls and more than 100 pies, according to Christine Smith, director of community relations and development.
Those enjoying the food could order as much as they liked, even seconds or thirds.
Karl Zahradka, 48, originally from Chicago, sat expectantly as servers brought him a plate.
He said he had recently gotten out of state prison, and came to Bradenton on a bus because he thought he had a job here.
It didn't happen, but he found a home at the Salvation Army's shelter, he said.
"Terrific meal," was the verdict of Terry McConnell, 70, a retiree who was partially disabled by a stroke.
"The taste was good, and I'm not used to being served -- somebody bringing me a meal. What a fantastic job these people here are doing."
One couple brought Thomas their 8-day-old infant and their 2-year-old Rosie to share a warm meal and celebrate Thanksgiving.
While the food was abundant, more food came in the back door to provide for families who had not yet arrived. Rosa Lyn Thomas, 52, of Palmetto, brought tubs of rice, greens, potato salad, turkey, dressing and gravy. It was left over from her the Carnes and Wilson family's Thanksgiving dinner for 80-plus people.
"We are a family that believes in helping others," she said, as she delivered the meal.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.