Darryl Jones paced around the Campbell Park Recreation Center. It was a few minutes to 1 p.m., almost time to serve the free Thanksgiving feast started in 1973 by his late grandmother, Rosa Jackson. Volunteers stood by, waiting to lift the covers off steaming pans of dressing, vegetables and mashed potatoes. About 10 smoked turkeys and five or six hams had been prepared, enough for the 100 or so people who streamed through the doors. Jones has been in charge of the dinner for years. He took it over after his grandmother died in 1996. But last year, the feast had to be canceled.
Jones, who is 49 and now lives in Apopka, is battling colon cancer.
Despite his illness, Jones decided a few months ago that this year's dinner would go on.
Even if he had to skip a chemotherapy session to do it.
"I'm a little tired, but other than that I feel good," he said a few minutes after the dinner began. A pink shirt and athletic pants hung off his thin frame. "I made a promise that as long as I'm able, I'm going to do it."
Nearby, a candle burned atop a table scattered with photos of his grandmother. Relatives light one every year in her honor.
Rosa Jackson was a retired dietary worker in the 1970s when she told her family that God had told her to start the dinner.
At its height, she and her volunteers would serve more than 300 people. Jackson had to move the event from her home to the rec center.
"There weren't as many programs for less-fortunate people," Jennifer O'Brien said.
O'Brien, 53, met Jackson in the late 1980s. They were neighbors. The two became fast friends, and soon afterward, Jackson invited the young woman to help out with the dinner.
Jackson even taught O'Brien her recipe for her "secret punch," which O'Brien ladled into cups Thursday.
"The wonderful thing is you feel like she's here with all of us," O'Brien said.
Others said they came to support Jones and the rest of the family.
Martha Bacon, 60, said she used to work with Jones' mother and grandmother at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
She said her family was out of town on Thursday and her husband suggested they spend the holiday helping others in the community. Bacon thought of Jones.
"I've known Darryl since he was little," she said. "He was always a sweet kid, and he's become an even better man."
Jackson accepted anybody at her dinners, those who attended Thursday said.
Jones is the same way. People need it, he said, especially during a slumping economy. That's one of the reasons he was determined to start back up again. Jones said his doctors gave him permission to travel and take on the project.
"We do it for everybody that wants to come," he said. "Everybody. Anybody.''
Samuel Jackson was happy to hear that. He said he can't remember the first time he went to one of Rosa Jackson's free feasts.
Though they shared the same last name, the two weren't related. But Samuel Jackson, a 61-year-old homeless veteran, knew of Rosa Jackson and her generosity.
He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and tends to be a loner. But he always feels like a member of the family at the dinner. He tries to come every year.
"Most people, when they think of Thanksgiving, just think of turkey and eating," he said. "There's a whole lot more to it. Even though I'm stuffed with turkey, it's the spiritual food I get here that lasts."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.