LIMA —Tonya Verhoff threw her arms around George Crisp’s shoulders. Then she rubbed his bald head. Both laughed.
The pair had just met, but their newfound friendship was typical of the atmosphere inside Lima’s Veterans Memorial Civic Center on Thursday.
There were no strangers on this day, just a few thousand friends who came to sat down at a common table and share a Thanksgiving meal with members of their community.
For the second consecutive year the Lima Community Church sponsored Lima’s annual Thanksgiving dinner. Last year more than 3,000 free meals were served.
Asked what the church’s congregation learned in its first year at the helm of the annual meal, Phil Starr, the pastor of student ministries at Lima Community Church, was quick with an answer.
“We learned that it takes a lot of people to pull this off,” Starr said. “Just with the donations alone … it takes so many organizations who invest in this community. And then on the day of the event, we have 300 volunteers who show up and say, ‘I wanna help make this happen.’”
Verhoff was one of those 300-plus volunteers. She had a smile for everyone who came through the Civic Center’s doors, and went out of her way to make each and every one feel special. Verhoff, who said her husband and three children were also volunteering on Thursday, made Crisp’s annual visit one to remember.
“I come every year. It’s Thanksgiving; everybody likes to eat on Thanksgiving. And so do I,” Crisp said. “But it’s really nice what the community does each year. I just met Tonya today, and she’s a very nice lady.”
Starr said fellowship is the key to the annual Thanksgiving meal.
“We just want the community to understand that this meal is when we come together and the table and have some time together. It’s such a special time, seeing the community come together.”
Ted Downey, of Lima, guided his wheelchair through the crowded Civic Center. The Vietnam veteran said he has attended the annual event “every year for a long time.”
Downey lives by himself and was especially appreciative of the meal. “You can’t cook a turkey dinner for one,” he said.
Sheri Campbell, of Kenton, credits the Thanksgiving dinner for saving her son’s life after a near-fatal traffic accident some eight years ago. Campbell said nurses at St. Rita’s Medical Center told her about the free meal and she attended. While there she shared the story of her son, who was clinging to life.
“Without the prayers and the level of support I got here my son may not have come home. They saved his life, and that’s why I come back every year,” said Campbell. “I am so grateful for this program. I’m grateful every day.”
The event is a 30-year tradition in Lima. Started by the Chester Cary family in 1989, the free Thanksgiving meal was overseen for the previous 13 years by Jerry Lewis, owner of several McDonald’s restaurants throughout the region. Last year was the first time Lima Community Church assumed the leadership role for the dinner.
A new event that exemplified the community’s giving spirit was held later in the day on Thursday when free Thanksgiving meals were distributed at Levels Lounge in downtown Lima. A spokeswoman said everyone who attended left with a bag of groceries and a full stomach.