Volunteers serve Marlyn Brown of Orlando a Thanksgiving meal at the Salvation Army gym in Orlando on Nov. 24, 2016. Brown, her children and her best friend shared the holiday at the community dinner.(Susan Jacobson / Orlando Sentinel)
They feasted on ham and turkey with all the fixings in the company of hundreds of other people Thursday at the Salvation Army gymnasium on Colonial Drive.
"I just love the environment," said Enrique Suarez, a retiree who has been attending the holiday dinner for six years. "It's like having a big family."
This was the 24th year that Eric Holm, owner and president of Metro Corral Partners, a Golden Corral franchisee, has provided a free Thanksgiving dinner to the community through his "Helpings from the Heart" program.
Hundreds of volunteers were prepared to distribute at least 20,000 plates, including to-go orders, to guests ranging from a 2-month-old baby to a woman in her 80s. Many left with bags full of second helpings of turkey, ham, dressing, cranberries, mashed and sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.
Oranges and bananas were available, too, for those wanting a healthy dessert or snack.
"If you say you need it, we're going to give it to you," said Holm, whose single mother struggled and received a Thanksgiving dinner from the Salvation Army when he was a boy.
The feast was not just for those in need, although many of the guests are down on their luck. It also was for college students who didn't go home, lonely single people and families who didn't want to fuss with cooking.
"It's a community meal," said Salvation Army Maj. Ted Morris, the area commander.
Volunteers did their best to make everyone welcome with smiles and conversation. Live entertainers sang and also played instrumental Christmas music, including "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Let it Snow."
Each table was decorated with pots of fall flowers.
Children could get their faces painted and take home balloon animals. Their parents could make free cellphone calls, courtesy of Calvary Orlando church and go home with a toiletry pack from the Orlando-based charity Clean the World.
Marlyn Brown dined with her children and her best friend, Harriet Rue, 53. Brown was widowed four years ago and said she's disabled and can't work. She's still grateful for what she has.
"I'm rich because I have a best friend and I have a family and a place to live and food to eat," said Brown, who lives in Orlando. "It's all about family right now."
Cynthia Skirving, 62, lives alone and came to eat with other people and also take a plate home to her elderly neighbor. She said she has a rare blood cancer and previously had open-heart surgery, but she doesn't complain.
"No matter what, somebody's always worse off," the Orlando resident said. "We're all going through something, and [here] we're going through it together."
Getting ready for the dinner is a massive undertaking. The food and equipment starts arriving on Tuesday. On Wednesday, 3,000 pounds each of turkey and ham, 3,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, 3,500 pounds each of green beans and sweet potatoes, 800 pounds of gravy, 400 pounds of cranberry sauce and 15,000 desserts, including pumpkin pie, are prepared.
The effort relies on corporate sponsors and about 1,000 volunteers such as Bob Mercer, 56, and his wife, Debbie Bowers, of Altamonte Springs.
"We're very lucky," said Bowers, who owns a small business. "We have a very nice life, so it's only right to give back."