BROOKSVILLE — Fabian Burnett's big brown eyes took in the dinner plate laden with turkey, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a fresh baked roll.
What was her favorite?
The 8-year-old pointed her fork at the mashed potatoes and gravy, where she'd quickly made a significant dent.
Friday's 13th annual free Christmas Eve luncheon sponsored by Jericho Road Ministries, with considerable donations from the community, fed the homeless, the needy and all comers at First United Methodist Church of Brooksville. Meals were prepared for 600, said Jericho director Pastor Bruce Gimbel.
Fabian was accompanied by her brother, Fabrayon, 6, and their great-grandmother, Annie Washington, 71, of Brooksville, with whom the children live. It was the trio's first visit for the feast.
From an assortment of desserts, both children chose a cupcake topped with a miniature plastic bear. An array of pies was also offered.
While the kids were aware that they also held tickets for a free toy, Fabian hadn't considered hers. Food was atop her list.
Prompted about the toy, however, then thinking, she said she'd like a Hot Wheels car.
Fabian's focus was somewhat unusual, said Barbara Pederson of Brooksville, co-organizer of the gift giving along with Linda Voelker of Spring Hill.
"The parents like the eating," Pederson said. "The kids like the toys."
Theola Norwood of Brooksville had an entirely different focus.
"I'm just looking for some people I haven't met," said the self-proclaimed evangelist, who has volunteered in the Jericho thrift shops for five years and applauds the nonprofit organization's work.
Meanwhile, about 75 volunteers had roasted, cooked, mixed, stirred and sliced over two days the various meal offerings. Reigning chef Gwynn Blair of Brooksville — one kitchen volunteer called him in jest "chief troublemaker" — said the kitchen staff roasted more than 30 turkeys over six hours Thursday, then began preparing the accompaniments at 7 a.m. Friday for the 11 a.m. door-opening.
First in the waiting line at 9 a.m. were Charlene Pederson of Brooksville and her children, Lisa, 12, and Rachel, 7. Husband and father Chuck Pederson was called early to set up the sound system while Chuck's mother, Barbara, was arranging the gift toys. The family has been participating since the event's inception.
While Barbara Pederson said the donation of toys wasn't as great as in past years, it was expected to be sufficient for the children attending. A surprise contribution were nine sparkling, refurbished bicycles, sized from first-time riders to teenagers, from the Florida Highwaymen Motorcycle Club of Ridge Manor. While an occasional bicycle had been donated before, never had a club given so much, Gimbel said.
Back in the kitchen, Blair confided that 13 years ago, he and his friend Mark Taylor "sat around and talked about why don't we do something about the homeless." They teamed up with Jericho Road Ministries "through God's grace," said Taylor.
The first year, the group served 200 to 250 meals, he said.
Then, "we thought there should be a community outreach," Taylor said. So, the event grew, and others in need were invited.
Gimbel said so many food donations came in this year that in addition to the meals served at the church Friday, 20 take-home boxes containing a ham or turkey and all the sides were prepared for those particularly needy.
"Donations for this event and in general were very forthcoming," he said. "People with jobs stepped up to the plate to help those in need.
"We're just thankful we can offer this meal," Gimbel added. "We thank the community for their partnership to allow (our) shelter for the homeless, men, women and children."
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.