So how many people are you expecting to share Thanksgiving dinner with today? Half a dozen? Twelve or more?
Martha O'Brien invited 400, but she underestimated. Earlier this week, she said she expected twice that many and perhaps 150 or more people to help serve, clean-up and maybe even just provide conversation and companionship to the lonely.
Fred Glass anticipated similar numbers, but the majority of his meals are take-out. As many as 1,000 dinners will go out the door in 90 minutes beginning at 11:30 a.m. today.
O'Brien is the assistant CEO at the Volunteer Way food bank in New Port Richey. Glass is with Helping Hands United, a ministry at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill. This week, they have similar job titles — Thanksgiving meal coordinators.
At St. Frances, volunteers cooked 72 birds. Some oven roasted in the kitchen inside, others smoked or deep fried outside in the parking lot. Carving was scheduled to begin last night. The side dishes will be cooked this morning. Notre Dame Catholic School collected the potatoes. West Hernando Middle School provided the stuffing and the church's religious education students donated 200 cans of peas and corn. Deserts are courtesy of Publix. Volunteer crews accepted the store bakeries' unsold pies, cakes and other sweets at closing time last night.
They will serve a sit-down meal to 350 or so beginning at 2 p.m., but the to-go plates account for most of the 1,500 meals prepared. Volunteers deliver food to on-duty police and firefighters, hospice families and people living in homeless shelters in two counties. This is the 11th year of the semiannual operation. It is repeated each Easter as well.
"It's an assembly line. They know exactly what to do. I don't even walk into the kitchen,'' said Glass.
O'Brien does not have that level of expertise among her volunteers. She is getting an assist from the professionals. IHOP is cooking the turkeys, potatoes and gravy, which will be shuttled from the restaurant in New Port Richey to the First Assembly of God Church on Trouble Creek. The Volunteer Way is preparing the vegetables. Already a shortage of green bean casserole and pie is anticipated.
Dinner is noon to 3 p.m. The fliers distributed for the event said approximately 400 meals will be served. That was based in part on the agency's experience two years ago when they invited 500 people and about 300 came. As of Monday, they had reservations from 500 adults, nearly 200 children and a file folder stuffed with print-outs of e-mails from volunteers from as far away as Tampa. O'Brien said she stopped counting the volunteer requests when she hit 150.
She appreciates the volunteers, but suspects the abundant offers of help are driven in part by individuals' own finances. So she welcomes them all and wonders if there will be enough chores to keep everyone busy.
"How am I going to turn away volunteers,'' she said, "if they may be in need too?''
Need is a growing familiarity. Cooking and serving dinner is not the Volunteer Way's typical meat and potatoes. This is a food bank that distributes non-perishables to 70 soup kitchens and food pantries. But demand is so great, the Volunteer Way doubles as its own pantry distributing dry goods on a daily basis. Three days ago, 250 people obtained boxes of food containing brown sugar, cereal and canned foods including sweet potatoes. More than 33,000 pounds of food were gone in four hours. O'Brien estimated up to 19,000 people a month are served by the Volunteer Way or its member pantries.
Today, diners will arrive by the bus load. Literally. The Volunteer Way borrowed a school bus from one of its church affiliates and plans to transport the homeless to and from the dinner. They've already handed out clothes and provided portable showers.
So the people with no place to live will sit down and dine with volunteers, some of whom may have no other place to go. It's a Thanksgiving blessing.
"People can provide companionship,'' said O'Brien, "talking, smiling and maybe even giving someone a hug can make a difference.''