TAMPA — For many homeless people, Thanksgiving came a day early.
Close to 300 were treated to hot meals Wednesday outside the Longshoremen’s Federal Credit Union near downtown Tampa as part of an annual effort called Heart for the Homeless.
Tampa socialite Jill Kelley and her husband, cancer surgeon Scott Kelley, first organized the event on Thanksgiving seven years ago.
Ever since, they’ve spent Thanksgiving feeding the homeless. This year, Heart for the Homeless was held the day before the holiday, but it still drew just as many people.
They were among thousands of local homeless people getting meals and sometimes more through the holiday charity of organizations across the region. Metropolitan Ministries, which helps supply many of these efforts, is gathering food to feed about 23,000 families between now and Christmas.
“It’s something that’s really important to my family,” Jill Kelley said. “A lot are veterans. A lot live out of their cars. A lot can’t find work. One thing keeping them going is that they have hope. It’s so wonderful to see that kind of hope.”
Kelley experienced notoriety of a different kind two years ago when her friendship with high-ranking military leaders at MacDill Air Force Base helped trigger the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus as head of the CIA over his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell.
But on Wednesday, it was all about giving back to the community.
Kelley, along with about 30 other volunteers — including twin sister Natalie Khawam — served hot meals catered by Golden Corral.
The diners filled their plates with turkey and gravy, stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and buttered rolls and had the chance to pick up a blanket and some canned goods to take with them. They sat around long tables in the credit union parking lot.
“I don’t know what it’s like not knowing what I’m going to eat day to day,” volunteer Frederick Sails said during a welcome speech. “But I can show kindness and compassion towards you. Many of you did not choose this life. It’s just a detour you have to take toward your destiny. You may be homeless, but you’re not helpless.”
About 20,000 blankets were donated by Daily Bread Tampa Bay. A group of employees from the Coca-Cola offices in Brandon brought the canned goods and helped serve the food.
Patricia Mott, 61, appreciated the respect shown by the Kelleys and the other volunteers.
“Today has brought out a giving spirit,” Mott said. “I think it’s awesome. Some look down on the homeless. We are human beings. We are not an object you threw out at the curb.”
This is the third time Mott has found herself without a home. At night, she sleeps wherever she can. But things are looking up: She will start a new job next week as a patient care technician.
“I’m thankful for today,” she said.
This was volunteer Marie Dodson’s first year helping out at the event.
“I gave my socks to somebody,” she said. “He had plastic bags on his feet. We don’t think about those things, you know?”