CLEARWATER — Their love of golf took root when they were young boys looking for ways to keep a little change in their pockets.
They would fish golf balls out of the ponds at the Clearwater Country Club and sell them three for a $1. Then they became caddies, carrying clubs while learning the rules and studying the swings they would someday emulate as adult players.
Now the Clearwater men are using the love of golf that brought them together to spread a little joy to others in what has become a community ritual.
On Sunday, the Clearwater Community Golfers will host the sixth annual Community Pre-Thanksgiving Dinner in the North Greenwood area.
"For one day at least, in this community, we come together as a community," said O'Neal Larkin, one of the 14 members of the Community Golfers and whose home on the corner at 602 Marshall St. is the site of the meal. "This is a good community."
All but three of the members of Community Golfers are retired and most of them have been friends since their childhood days in Clearwater.
Getting together for regular golf outings was the main focus for the group when it started in 1999, said Larkin, 68. But then they decided they wanted to do something for the community.
"At first, we wanted to do a community basket," Larkin said. "But then my wife said, 'Why don't you guys chip in and do a dinner?' "
That was six years ago and 154 people showed up to eat the turkey, dressing, collards, potato salad and candied yams. Last year, there were more than 800 people.
"It's getting larger and larger and this year, I'm looking for it to explode," said Tyrone Burney, 67, a lifelong Clearwater resident. "With the community support and the economy the way it is this year, it's going to explode and we look forward to it."
Burney retired from Stucco and Stone 15 years ago.
William Glenn, 73, retired from the Pinellas County School Board 10 years ago. He said it is the community support that makes the dinner worthwhile.
"I'm able to get a meal and I'm not worried about my next one," Glenn said. "There are some people who can't say that. This community understands that and comes together to say on this day, everyone will have a meal."
Larkin, who retired from the Clearwater Parks and Recreation Department 10 years ago, heads up the effort, seeking out sponsors and donations. Local businesses from Publix to Young's Funeral Home Inc., 1005 Howard St., have chipped in.
Larkin said everything helps.
Water and soda have started arriving. Larkin has 75 bushels of collards that will be distributed to community cooks who will cut and cook them for Sunday's dinner. Folks are making corn bread dressing, cakes and pies.
"We are only two blocks away and we are part of the community and it's a wonderful chance for us to give back," said Cj Lammers, president of Short Block Technologies Inc., 1401 N Myrtle Ave., a sponsor since the event's inception. "It does pure good. There's no net benefit to anyone but the community."
Lammers said the company cut back on everything this year but the pre-Thanksgiving meal, increasing that budget to serve another 100 people.
Bilal Habeeb-ullah of the African American Leadership Council was one of the first people Larkin reached out to for assistance with the meal. Habeeb-ullah and AALC have helped ever since.
"Anytime you have an organization of people in the community helping in their community, it's a great thing," Habeeb-ullah said. "We know this is something that's needed and any kind of support we can offer, we are there. When you can help anyone who is less fortunate, it comes back to you."
Community Golfers not only hosts the pre-Thanksgiving meal, but the group is having a Holiday Swing golf tournament, a toy drive for Christmas and a golf tournament, Freedom Swing, the Sunday before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Larkin, whose first love is fishing, said he and the other members of Community Golfers are blessed.
"We not only have love for golf, but we have love for the life God has given," Larkin said. "This is our small way of showing that."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or firstname.lastname@example.org