BROOKSVILLE — Harold Scudder shuddered at the thought of spending Thanksgiving in his two-bedroom apartment.
Scudder, an 86-year-old former cook, had to quit his job to take care of his wife, who is now ailing in a nursing home. He recently lost his house to foreclosure and survives on Social Security, so he had little motivation and few extra dollars to cook a big meal for himself and a friend who rents his second bedroom.
So the pair headed to St. Frances Cabrini Church on Thursday afternoon to have a turkey dinner with all the fixings. The church started cooking Thanksgiving meals for the needy 11 years ago and now the event, like the holidays, are a tradition.
"I can't believe how many volunteers they have, and the food is excellent," Scudder said a few minutes after polishing off a slice of apple pie. "It's a godsend."
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Church members cooked up the first event on Easter Sunday 11 years ago, serving about 150 people, recalls Fred Glass, a church member who has helped organize the effort since the beginning. They decided to do the same on Thanksgiving that year.
This Thanksgiving, about 300 volunteers pitched in labor and donations to provide enough meals for 1,500, Glass said. He estimated that about 1,200 would be fed Thursday.
A few beneficiaries like Scudder eat in, dining under the soaring ceilings of Xavier Hall, behind the church's massive, modern sanctuary on Mariner Boulevard.
Most, though, get dinner delivered. Needy families, the elderly and homebound call the church in advance to place orders. Volunteers also drive meals to Pasco and Hernando shelters for the homeless or abused.
The church decided eight years ago to extend the delivery service to first responders in Hernando County at the Sheriff's Office and fire stations.
"After 9/11, we decided it was a way to say thank you for their work," Glass said.
For the volunteers, the real work started Wednesday. About 90 turkeys were roasted, deep fried or smoked. West Hernando Middle School had collected enough stuffing for 900 people, and Notre Dame Catholic School provided plenty of potatoes.
"It's a lot of work for a lot of people, but we enjoy doing this together," Glass said.
Brittany Galloway spent hours Wednesday and Thursday sorting through baked goods, ranging from loaves of rye to cupcakes topped with plastic turkeys, donated by local supermarkets.
She'll wind up with a full belly later, but working for needy residents offers a different kind of fulfillment.
"It makes me happy that they're enjoying a nice meal like we all are," the 18-year-old Spring Hill resident said, a mound of bread piled high as her head on a nearby table. "It helps me realize I'm very fortunate."
Jack Lagala of Spring Hill dissected turkey for 10 hours on Wednesday. A fitting job for the 75-year-old retired meat cutter, who has volunteered since the start. Lagala said he was in bed by 1:30 a.m. Thursday and back in the kitchen five hours later. His wife, Veronica, in charge of turkey skinning, put in about the same amount of time.
"It's a way of helping God's people," Jack said.
By 11 a.m., food started flying into containers, steaming gravy flowed into cups and the sound of aluminum foil crackled in the hall. Ten minutes later, Glass made the announcement.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to start delivering."
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Thanksgiving morning had been blessedly quiet at Hernando County Fire Rescue's Station 11 on Barclay Avenue in Spring Hill
One firefighter napped in a recliner in front of the television. Another busied himself in the kitchen, starting to prep a Thanksgiving dinner. That firefighter, 21-year-old rookie Nick Ingargio working his first Thanksgiving, found out he didn't need to go to the trouble when Spring Hill resident Angelynn Weeks and her two children walked in laden with food from St. Frances.
"Hello?" Weeks called out as her 14-year-old son Nicholas and 9-year-old daughter Olivia followed her into the bay and then the station. "We're from the church, and we've got food here."
Firefighter Brad Kufnar jumped up from a chair and thanked the family. Kufnar, 37, has two kids at home and said he has spent plenty of holidays in the station over the years.
Kufnar, four other firefighters and a chief started their 24-hour shift at 8 a.m. Thanksgiving Day in the cramped station isn't exactly a party.
"It's almost depressing, if you know what I mean," Kufnar said.
"Happy Thanksgiving," Weeks said, extending a hand. "Thank you for serving us."
In fact, visiting a fire station is a familiar experience for Weeks, 41. Her stepfather spent plenty of Thanksgivings there, so as a child she and her family would celebrate the holiday by having dinner the day before and then visit the station during dad's shift.
Weeks has volunteered for the St. Frances feeding for a few years now.
"Because it's good for the soul," she said, and then put an arm around her daughter. "And it sets a good example for the kids."
"It really means a lot to have them stop by," Kufnar said, "and to know that they're thinking of us."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.