The woman with wild red hair sat over a half-eaten plate of Thanksgiving food Thursday afternoon, telling a stranger about the time she tried to kill herself.
Donna Marshall had planned to spend Thanksgiving alone. She'd make an egg salad sandwich, she thought, and watch the parade from her St. Petersburg apartment. But when she woke up Thursday, she wanted to be with people. She remembered the free dinner she read about, at the place with the perfect name — Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, 6315 Central Ave.
Marshall, 57, put on a colorful outfit — yellow shoes, purple floral dress, a black shawl and a dazzling array of costume jewelry. She tucked her dog Gizmo, a papillon-chihuahua mix, into his travel bag and headed out.
• • •
Gay Inskeep, the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court administrator, always wanted to organize a big Thanksgiving dinner for those in need. Twelve years ago her husband, Paul, pushed her to finally make it happen.
About 40 people showed up that first year, Inskeep said Thursday. As the ranks have grown since — 375 last year, and a similar crowd was expected Thursday — so has the amount of donated food. Thursday's spread, prepared and served by a team of about 50 volunteers, included 26 turkeys, 100 pounds of mashed potatoes, 80 pounds of sweet potatoes and more than 40 pies.
A few years ago the Inskeeps added the "Free Market" — a few tables out front where they give away donated clothing and toiletries. The event is always held at Inskeep's church, but she emphasizes it's nonreligious.
"I like giving back, but I also like seeing the connections between strangers," said Inskeep, 50, of Treasure Island.
Outside the church, Donna Marshall sat at a table by herself, Gizmo at her feet. A man who called himself "Doc" pulled up a chair.
• • •
Doc didn't talk as much as Marshall did. Doc was 55, he said, and had been homeless off and on since 2006. He has some family, but less than he used to. His mother died last month, and his sister and her husband are going through problems, so Doc came to Pilgrim. This was his third Thanksgiving here.
"God bless them," he said of the Inskeeps. "If they didn't do this, I wouldn't be eating."
Marshall wasn't homeless, but, as she told Doc, she has had her problems.
She struggled with mental illness for years, she said, before that day in October 2007. The news reports said "woman in critical condition after her car caught on fire," but what actually happened was Marshall tried to kill herself. She had parked behind a Tampa gas station, filled a plastic container with gasoline, then got back in the car and started a fire. She said a voice, she thinks Satan, told her to do it.
An off-duty fire investigator saved her life, Marshall said, pulling her from the car before it was engulfed in flames. (News reports say Marshall had gotten out of the car by the time the investigator arrived.)
As she recovered in the hospital, Marshall said, she realized how selfish she had been, the pain she would have caused her mother back in Rockland, Mass. Thursday morning, Marshall had called her mother to tell her where she was spending Thanksgiving.
"That's good," her mother said. "You should go be with people."
As Marshall finished telling her story, she grimaced. She worried she shared too much.
"It just, you know, it feels good," she said.
Doc shook his head in agreement as he picked at apple pie.
"That's okay," he said. "It's cathartic."
"I don't feel alone, being here," Marshall said. "It makes me warm in my heart."
She felt so good, she wanted to do something for someone else. She asked Doc for the nearest Veterans Affairs center. She wanted to visit veterans and see if she could cheer them up. Bay Pines, he said.
Marshall got up to thank the volunteer at the Free Market who helped her find the purple fleece and white jacket, Christmas presents for her mother, who visits next month. As she drove off, she passed the church sign. "FREE THANKSGIVING DINNER," it said. "ALL ARE WELCOME."
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.