BRADENTON -- Salvation Army of Manatee County Director of Community Development Christine Smith cautioned about 30 volunteers serving Thanksgiving dinner to those in need that they would see a variety of people coming in for the meal -- including children.
"Most people that come are legitimately homeless," Smith said. "Some are seniors who have no family and you will see homeless children so I want you to be prepared for that."
There were about a dozen children outside the Salvation Army amongst about 50 people who lined up for the 4 p.m. start to a traditional turkey dinner. Smith's prediction of hosting a variety of people was accurate. A 67-year-old woman who wished not be identified was in line with her 70-year-old husband. The couple just spent three weeks on the road from New Mexico to make it to Bradenton. She has a heart condition and her doctor advised that Florida's low elevation would be beneficial to her health.
"We've been eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a long time because we spent all of our money trying to find a place to live," she said. "To get a hot meal on Thanksgiving is a blessing and the people here are wonderful. There are a lot of people who are worse off than us, but we are really close to being worse off ourselves. We are very lucky, very blessed and very grateful."
Many of the volunteers were experienced and it was apparent when those with experience began guiding some of the newer wide-eyed volunteers getting their first experience of serving dinner in the Salvation Army kitchen. Gary and Kathy Ritsema were first-time volunteers. No strangers to serving big holiday meals for up to 20 family members, the couple found themselves with no family this year and knew what they wanted to do.
"We decided to do this last year," said Kathy Ritsema. "We felt it was time to reach out and help other people." The couple came straight from their own church event to serve in a different way.
Steven Gilbert, a 67-year-old retired cook living on the streets appreciated what the Ristemas and others were doing for him.
"I didn't know what I was going to eat today," said Gilbert, who recently moved back to his hometown from Savannah, Ga. "I've been living at the bus stop since May. I just want all these people to know how much I appreciate them. I've had people at the bus stop giving me food, Bayside Community Church brought us food and now the Salvation Army dinner. I've got food for today and tonight and maybe even tomorrow."
Gilbert said it was a very special Thanksgiving to know he had food for more than a day.
"I retired and came back home because I just got tired," he said. "I just didn't realize how tough it would be. It's really important to me that all these people know how much I appreciate them."
Salvation Army volunteers served 125 turkeys, 250 pounds of stuffing, 175 pounds of green beans, 250 pounds of mashed potatoes and 150 pies. More than 50 people lined up for the start of dinner with an estimated 200 more attending during the hour-long dinner. The Salvation Army serves a hot meal to the area's needy 365 days a year, but Smith said Thanksgiving is special because it's a time to remember that "We don't just serve a meal, we are serving the soul."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7045 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.