ST. PETERSBURG — Late last month, Debbie Bernhard posted an invitation in the “I Love St. Pete” Facebook group.
Now, she is a community hero.
Bernhard on Nov. 25 published a post in the public group (which has more than 48,000 followers) inviting anyone without Thanksgiving Day plans or a place to go for the holiday to her home.
“I know what it’s like to be without family for the holidays,” her post read.
As of Friday, the post had generated nearly 600 reactions, more than 100 comments and seven shares.
“What a lovely gesture!” responded commenter Susan Irving. “It’s people like you that make St. Pete great!”
Echoed Elaine Pettit, “How blessed we are to have kind ‘friends’ like you in our community.”
At the time, Bernhard, 53, of St. Petersburg didn’t think it was a big deal. But she’s been overwhelmed by the response.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said. “This is embarrassing for me, because I didn’t do it for any type of notoriety. It’s so not me. I do things for strangers all the time."
Once, she anonymously paid for the dinner of a woman sitting next to her family at a restaurant who was eating alone on Mother’s Day.
“It was so sad she didn’t have a mom,” Bernhard said. “When my family and I left, I was crying. But when I saw her walking out she had a big smile on her face.”
Last Thanksgiving, she made meals from the leftovers from her family’s dinner and took them to the men at a nearby 7-Eleven who had to work the holiday.
“I don’t see it as odd," she said. “I think that’s basic humanity. We can all do an act of kindness every day. And if we can do an act of kindness every day, we’d be in a better place.”
Opening her doors to strangers who had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving was just another act of kindness.
And much to her surprise, her gesture encouraged others to help, too.
Numerous people left comments on her post or messaged her offering money, turkeys, food and even their own homes in case Bernhard ran out of food or room at her table.
But there was plenty to eat, and everyone had a place to sit, whether at her house or one of the others.
In addition to her husband, two children, her brother and his wife, Bernhard served six others at her home. They enjoyed turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, desserts and wine — much of which she said guests brought with them.
Surprisingly, only one guest came because she had seen the Facebook post: Carole Lesley, a 52-year old native of Yorkshire, England who now lives in St. Petersburg.
Lesley moved from England to Sarasota five years ago. After two years there, she lived in Massachusetts and Georgia before settling in St. Petersburg almost a year ago.
Typically, Lesley visits a friend’s home for Thanksgiving. But she was in the process of moving this year and didn’t think about where she would spend the holiday until stumbling upon Bernhard’s post.
“I thought, ‘What a nice thing to do. They must be lovely people,'" Lesley said.
She messaged Bernhard on Facebook and asked if she could join her family.
“Of course,” Bernhard responded.
The thought of going to a stranger’s house for Thanksgiving never scared Lesley, because she enjoys trying new things and meeting new people.
This was no different.
Lesley said she enjoyed every minute of the evening and stayed to chat with Bernhard and her husband hours after everyone else had left.
“We just clicked and had a connection,” Lesley said.
“We talked about England, because her husband had lived in Yorkshire for two years and was stationed there in the military."
Lesley said this was her best Thanksgiving yet.
“I’ve been to Thanksgiving dinner at so many places and they’ve never been quite like how I expected,” she said.
“I expected it to be like Christmas Day with turkey, ham, and I’ve been to friends that had more of a birthday style. I’ve been places where they’ve had paper plates, where some people serve food on the counter rather than the table, but this was the first proper Thanksgiving dinner I’ve had here."
In fact, the dinner went so well, Bernhard and Lesley have already made plans to meet for lunch, and Bernhard expects them to become lifelong friends.
She said she’s open to visitors again next year.
Just don’t expect another Facebook post.