This Thursday in the University City YMCA’s gymnasium, the sounds of squeaking sneakers will fall silent. All the basketballs will be still.
Instead, 90 rectangular tables draped in autumn-inspired tablecloths will take over the space, and the aroma of roasted turkey and dressing will fill the air.
After 11 straight years, the YMCA’s University City Thanksgiving Dinner, always held on the Thursday a week before Thanksgiving, has become a community tradition.
It’s an opportunity for volunteers to offer a free, hot meal to neighbors who may be without their families, food or even homes during the holiday season.
This year’s event, sponsored by Food Lion, TIAA-CREF and UNC Charlotte, will be Nov. 15 at the University City YMCA, 8100 Old Mallard Creek Road, Charlotte.
“We invite the entire community out. Anyone who has the need,” said Mel Verburg, branch and volunteer administrator, “whether that need is because they don’t have the ability to prepare a meal at home, because they’re at a shelter, because they don’t have the funds to prepare a meal of that magnitude, or if they need the fellowship for that evening.”
Invitations were sent out earlier in the month to dozens of agencies, low-income neighborhoods, schools and shelters.
Each year YMCA and church buses travel to area men’s and women’s shelters, nursing homes and other local agencies to pick up guests.
The number of dinner guests each year has continued to grow.
“Last year at the men’s shelter we filled a 72-passenger bus and two of our 13-passenger buses, and could have put more people on buses had we had them available,” said Verburg.
This week, volunteers from area churches will turn the pounds of turkey, potatoes and bread crumbs donated by Food Lion into enough roasted, mashed and stuffed dishes to feed 600 guests.
“It’s always wonderful. They take great pride and care,” said Natia Walker, financial and community development director for the University City YMCA. “They have their secret recipes that they don’t share.”
Church members volunteer to serve the meal as well. “It’s just one of those feel-good events that people really want to be a part of,” said Verburg.
The Thanksgiving dinner also serves as a fundraiser. For $100, people can sponsor a table; the proceeds go to support YMCA children’s programs.
Guests who can cook meals at home also receive a bag of food collected during the YMCA’s food drive before they leave.
The meal brings them in, but often Verburg suspects it’s the fellowship that fills them up more.
“We had a gentleman come last year who had lost his mom, his dad and his brother, all within the span of one year,” said Verburg. “He didn’t have anyone to spend Thanksgiving with, so he came and spent it with us.”
Another guest who sat quietly alone during his entire meal chatted endlessly after he met a volunteer who shared his native language.
“The world is a big place,” said Verburg, “but it’s really also a small community.”