Hundreds of people flowed in and out of the doors of the Good News at Noon homeless shelter on Thursday.
Some came seeking food for their stomachs, others seeking food for their soul — but no matter what their purpose, they all left filled.
While Good News founder and director Gene Beckstein said that tough economic times have brought more first-timers to the annual meal in Gainesville, there were some familiar faces in the crowd.
“I’ve been serving food here for around 13 years,” said Ellen Rogers, a Clermont resident. “I’m over the kitchen on Thanksgiving and every fourth Friday of the month my children and I serve the meal at the shelter.”
Organizing a meal for more than 300 hungry attendees can be a challenge, but apparently Rogers has things under control. As a testament to that, Beckstein hangs a sign on the door on Thanksgiving that reads, “Today only the Rogers family in the kitchen.”
In addition to her daughter, Mary Adkins, Rogers has her selected “kitchen crew” that includes Jeff Maynard, Sam Ivey and Vanessa Schaeffer, all of whom have several years of dedicated service under their belts.
“God has blessed us, so that we might be a blessing to others,” said Ivey.
Even while sweating over a commercial stove, stirring a giant pot of gravy to accompany the prerequisite Thanksgiving turkey, the volunteers were happy to lend a hand, even though it meant taking away time from their own families.
“Being here is a privilege,” said Schaeffer.
“It makes my heart feel so good,” said Adkins.
Although some of the diners may be without a home or a job, their Thanksgiving meal mirrored the same repast that was being served in many homes across the country — turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, beans, rolls, sweet potato souffle, broccoli casserole and a variety of desserts.
“(Mrs. James) Baker has been donating 35 turkeys, dressing and other things for the dinner for more than 12 years,” said Rogers. “And what we don’t have enough of, we fill in.”
Just like other families, several members of the Good News at Noon family shared why they were thankful before the meal was served.
“There were about 15 of us who used to come here — we wouldn’t listen to anything anyone had to say. We just came to mess around and cause trouble,” said 18-year-old Jonathan Castillo. “Back then, I used to sell drugs also. I never used them, but I sold them. I thought if I didn’t do them, it’s OK. I’d been shot at and almost stabbed.”
Castillo said when he was around 14 years old, “God knocked on my head and I started listening.”
“My friends stopped coming. Some have gotten shot, some are dead, some are in jail and some I don’t know where they are at — but I’m still here,” Castillo said. “Now I’m a teacher here at the academy. I teach the teenagers. I tell them that if I can change my life, anyone can change theirs.”