Every year for the past several, Marquita R. Robinson sits at a table at the Feast of Giving inside a massive room at the Dayton Convention Center to have Thanksgiving dinner with several thousand of her neighbors.
It’s also a homecoming of sorts.
“This is the place where a lot of my friends (meet) to see each other and we haven’t seen each other throughout the whole year,” the 32-year-old Dayton resident said before standing up and shouting and waving at a friend.
More than 8,000 people were expected to stream through the convention center’s doors Thursday. Marking it’s 49th year, the Thanksgiving Day tradition draws people of all ages and backgrounds who come together one day as a community, many interacting with strangers they have never met.
Richard C. Jones, 50, of Dayton, stopped in for his first trip to Feast of Giving since moving to the Gem City from Atlanta.
“I didn’t have any plans and I’m relatively new to Dayton,” he said.
Last year, he said he spent Thanksgiving alone. That changed this time once he found out about the dinner.
“I’m hoping to meet some of my Dayton neighbors,” he said as a band played on a stage near his table. “I’m not really an outgoing person. This is like something brand new and hopefully becomes a tradition.”
The gathering had 500 volunteers — and turned away another 700 — to prepare and serve free meals to throngs of attendees, said Stephen Levitt, one of the event’s organizers.
“There’s always a few hang-ups, but we make it work,” he said.
Stephanie Richardson, 53, of Dayton, and Amy Schmitt, 59, of Beavercreek, set out place mats and prepared decorations in a room set aside for children.
The Thanksgiving spirit of giving “just spoke to me,” said Richardson, volunteering for the first time at the dinner since she recently moved to Dayton from the Virgin Islands.
Schmitt, a self-described “people person” and a public health nurse, wanted to work with children.
“It’s fun,” she said. And it gave her a sense of appreciation. “You come in here and serve today and you walk out with no complaints.”
Carol and Roger Ober of Beavercreek, volunteered for the first time, working as security monitors.
Carol Ober, a 71-year-old retired school teacher, said they wanted “to be part of something bigger than yourself and this is definitely big.”
The community dinner is so big it takes days to cook food for thousands.
Thursday started with a very basic ingredient that was the hardest to manage: Boiling water, said Sous-Chief Andrew Payne.
“Probably close to 1,000 gallons of water we had to get to a boil to be able to make the stuffing, to make the gravy, to make the mashed potatoes,” he said. “It’s constant. We started boiling water at two o’clock this morning.”
Payne also was one of about a dozen who spent seven to 10 hours Monday slicing 3,000 pounds of turkey.
The shopping list this year included 2,600 pounds of mashed potatoes, 2,000 pounds each of green beans and breaded stuffing, and 100 gallons of gravy. For dessert, the feast rolled out 900 pies of all sorts and 8,000 servings of ice cream.
Vanilla is the most popular flavor, said Joe Hartenstein, 62, of Trotwood. The long-time event volunteer and retired school truant officer also hands out chocolate and sherbet ice cream.
For Robinson, a restaurant cashier, the mashed potatoes are the best on a filled Thanksgiving plate.
“I always get double mash every time I come down here,” she said. “Because it’s all silky. You add some butter to them and they’re awesome.”
Organizers stepped in nearly a decade ago when the Beerman Foundation, which had sponsored the event since 1969, announced plans to end the Thanksgiving tradition in Dayton.
The event costs about $180,000, half of which represent purveyors who donate food and equipment and the rest represents monetary donations, Levitt said.