TAMPA — Unlike typical mealtimes, Sharyna Black sat leisurely savoring every bite of the delectable dinner with her sons, 1-year-old Xavier and his 6-year-old big brother, Isaiah.
Without having to lift a finger, she and her youngsters were each served tableside with a plate of hot turkey, complete with all the fixings and their choice of desserts.
“It’s very nice,” she said. “I didn’t expect to get so much attention.”
But that was the primary purpose behind the pre-Thanksgiving sit-down dinner affair at the University Area Community Center in which more than 1,000 people from nearby low-income neighborhoods gathered to break bread and usher in the holiday season.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Linebacker Ryan Nece — founder of the Ryan Nece Foundation that for six consecutive years has hosted the Power of Thanksgiving Celebration — was on hand to greet and serve guests in tandem with a team of more than 150 volunteers. Outfitted in T-shirts that read, “The Power of Giving,” most were high school students engaged in the foundation’s student service program.
“We’ve all come together to make a difference in people’s lives,” Nece told the gathering of volunteers just prior to the dinner.
Winn-Dixie, Metropolitan Ministries, Feeding America Tampa Bay, TECO Energy, Humana and the University Area Community Development Corporation were among the event’s other contributors.
Miss Florida 2014 Victoria Cowen and Miss Florida’s Outstanding Teen Michaela McLean also mingled with the guests, who were treated to a medley of holiday tunes by local band Phase 5, a free take-home family portrait compliments of Shutterbooth, and a box of fresh produce and frozen meats upon their departure.
Nece expressed his empathy for families struggling to put food on their tables and his joy in being able to provide them with a special Thanksgiving dinner.
“This event is inspiring to me because I get an opportunity to see the goodness in people’s hearts, I get to see people give and I get to see the people smile,” Nece said.
Khylee Jones, the mother of five, was there with three of her children.
“I’m really enjoying it,” said Jones, noting it was the second year they’d attended. “It’s really nice, too, to have a photo keepsake to take home.”
Jeff Friedman, a junior at Hillsborough High, volunteered as a server. It was a first-of-its-kind experience for him.
“I feel bad for people who don’t have anything,” he said.
His serving partner, Heta Patel, a King High sophomore, said while it was her first time helping at this event, she’s supported other projects to assist the needy.
“It’s a nice thing to do and I think that feeling of self-satisfaction is the main reason volunteering is so big,” she said.
Edward Ellsasser, president of Prime Group Insurance in Tampa and vice president of the Ryan Nece Foundation’s board of directors, also was there as a volunteer along with all 20 of his employees and his son, Austin, 13.
“Ryan’s passion for giving back gets me excited and I’m trying to pass that along to my son,” he said. “When you give, it comes back to you.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]