Retired veterans John Adams and David Archer have no family in South Mississippi. They loaded Archer's walker in a car Thursday and asked a neighbor to join them for a free Thanksgiving meal.
"All we have is each other," said Adams, who served in the Air Force.
Archer, who served in the Army, said he and Adams come to the Gulf Coast Rescue Mission in Biloxi every year for a holiday meal.
The men and their guest, Chuck Ridens, said they were touched not only by the food, but by the kindness of those who volunteered to help provide them with a hot Thanksgiving meal.
At least 1,400 volunteers were helping hands Thursday, serving up more than 4,100 meals in three programs for the needy in Harrison and Jackson counties, and in a communitywide gathering in Hancock County.
Ed Smith stood in a long line about 8 a.m. at the Lyman Community Center north of Gulfport, where the Gulf Coast Public Safety Feed the Needy program had prepared enough food for 1,800 people.
Many volunteers, like Smith, held up Styrofoam boxes as they walked past a food line where servers filled boxes and plates with turkey and the trimmings. Some loaded the to-go boxes into larger boxes destined for areas throughout Harrison County, while others delivered the plates to homes. Still others staffed a pick-up table for those who didn't need delivery.
"It's good for the heart," Smith said. He's volunteered about nine years for the holiday meal program, previously known as Harrison County Feed the Needy.
Law enforcement officials helped, along with people who came alone, with their families or friends or in large groups.
"We couldn't do it without the volunteers," said Gulfport police Lt. Mike Shaw, Feed the Needy coordinator.
Volunteers of all ages, from all walks of life and even with disabilities turned out in the spirit of volunteerism.
Zenita Day, wheelchair-bound after a stroke and a fall, helped fill plates.
"I realized I could reach out and hold the plate and roll myself to the next food item," Day said.
One of the youngest volunteers was a 5-year-old boy named Rico. He held up a plate as he walked alongside his mother, Stephanie Touchstone.
Valerie Hill, a 20-year volunteer for the program, coordinated the sliced and dished-out pecan pie. She said she always brings her children and other relatives and friends to help.
The feeling of giving has kept Jimmy Johnson volunteering with Feed the Needy for 26 years.
"Many people we deliver to don't have family," he said.
"It's not just about a hot meal. It's about the fellowship and the response of people when you knock on their doors. They want you to come in and visit. You don't leave in a hurry."
The Gulf Coast Rescue Mission, which currently houses 20 men overcoming addictions, prepared enough food for 700 people. Residents helped cook and set up and a volunteer force 200 strong welcomed guests, served them and visited tables to check on their needs. Those unable to walk to the serving line received five-star treatment.
Executive Director Tom Mims said it does his heart good to see people helping others, and to see the residents volunteering as well.
"It helps the men experience what it feels like to be givers, not takers," he said. "If you can change a life, that life can go out and change another life."
Our Daily Bread in Pascagoula was prepared to feed more than 200 people when it opened its doors for walk-ins during the lunch hour.
"It's from the heart," said Mary Meldren, the cook and executive director.
In Bay St. Louis, the Kelly Family Thanksgiving celebrated its 30th year of providing a free sit-down, restaurant-style meal for the Hancock County community. The family prepared enough food to serve 1,000 people. Diners gathered at the American Legion Hall in Bay St. Louis.
Coordinator Nancy Kelly Bosarge said 155 meals also were delivered to homebound residents.