ALBANY, Ga. -- For close to 50 years, a local organization has given members of the community a November holiday meal for free.
The tradition continues. The Salvation Army hosted a community Thanksgiving dinner at its Second Avenue facility Tuesday evening.
"This is something we have been doing awhile," said Captain Douglas McClure.
The special dinner was hosted on Tuesday rather than Thursday to allow the organization's staff a chance to spend the holiday with their families. "It gives my staff a chance to be off," McClure said.
And this is a service badly needed here. Statistics from the Georgia Department of Education indicate that just over 80 percent of the students enrolled in the Dougherty County School System were eligible for free and reduced lunches during Fiscal Year 2010.
"I think this (the Thanksgiving meal) is something to let the community know we are here to help people," said Judy Russell, an 11-year Salvation Army staff member who was assisted in serving Tuesday's meal. "We can't always please everyone, but we try our best.
The organization serves meals daily. Last year, the local Salvation Army feed a total of 33,000 people -- 9,000 more than the year before.
On average, the staff sees about 80-90 people a night as well as close to 60 people for breakfast.
Tuesday's dinner started at 6 p.m., and 20 minutes later, there were still people filing through the front door. Last year, 90 people took advantage of the Salvation Army's Thanksgiving meal. Some years, attendance has been as high as 150.
"It's gotten bigger, especially over the last couple of years," Russell said. "I think it (serving the meals) contributes to the community, but we appreciate the community for their donations. Everything helps."
Throughout all of this, the organization has never turned anyone away.
"This is not based on income, it's based on homeless prevention," McClure said. "The free meal here gives (people) money to do other things.
"It's important for people to have a Thanksgiving. It's a tradition we've had for years. Everyone should have a chance to experience Thanksgiving."
The Salvation Army, established in 1865, gives assistance to 30 million Americans each year through services such as providing food, relief for disaster victims, assistance for the disabled, outreach to the elderly and ill, clothing and shelter to the homeless as well as opportunities for underprivileged children.
Eighty-two cents of every dollar spent is used to carry out these services in 5,000 communities nationwide.