Seventy-eight-year-old Dorothy Williamson was so eager to treat her taste buds to some free turkey Thursday, she arrived at the Rome Civic Center just past 7 a.m.

Doors didn’t open for the 31st annual Thanksgiving Love Feast until 11 a.m.

“I was the first one. Me and my son Ricky,” the Shannon resident said with a smile about 20 minutes before the thick orange doors finally swung open for the estimated 3,000 guests expected up until 2 p.m. “I’ve just been watching and listening to everybody.”

A Floyd County resident for the past 44 years, Williamson said she’s been slowed down a bit by a failing heart that required the addition of four stents.

Not having to worry about cooking a big holiday meal is priceless.

“My favorite thing is the dressing. I love homemade dressing,” said Williamson, a mother of three who lost one son four years ago. “The only part of the turkey I will eat is the breast because it’s white meat and my cardiologist said I should stick to white meat.”

Behind her in line was Dora Riggins, who arrived at about 9 a.m. with her sons Carlos and Rafael.

Riggins said she was grateful for the meal because she’d been unable to work her hostess shifts at Jack’s restaurant in Armuchee for the past six weeks while recovering from knee surgery. She also was looking forward to getting some free blankets since struggling to keep the lights on at her East Rome home.

Minutes before the doors opened, Love Feast founder Rev. Terrell Shields announced to the growing crowd stretching back to the old caboose at the Visitor Center that they were doing things a little differently this year.

“We will serve you,” Shields yelled through his cupped hands as he stood atop a small rock wall, joking that all they had to do was leave a tip for their server. “You will just find a seat and a plate will be brought to you and you’ll tell the volunteers whether you’d like lemonade or tea. After you eat, you can get some warm clothing if you want.”

A few guests at the front of the line applauded the news of being waited on, instead of having to go through the buffet line themselves.

Inside, Shields’ wife Sylvia Shields sang a soulful, a cappella rendition of “We Thank You Lord” for the more than 60 volunteers as they prepared to do what they love most: help those less fortunate.

They were people like Rome City Commissioner Wendy Davis, who was busy in the back room helping pack hundreds of meals being delivered to homes throughout Floyd County.

Davis said she’s been working the Love Feast for the past three years and had arrived around 9 a.m. to help prepare the turkey.

“I was pulling turkeys apart earlier. Turkeys that were really, really hot,” she said, adding she made her bother push back his Thanksgiving plans for the day so she could be at the Civic Center. “It makes me feel good to help other people and be a part of this beautiful community.”

That’s exactly why 12-year-old Alli Robinson rallied fellow Darlington School students for the past two years to help her collect nearly 600 stuffed animals to give away during the Love Feast.

“Three years back I saw a little girl hugging a bag of marshmallows,” the seventh-grader said as a woman carrying a small child reached for a rainbow-colored unicorn. “It seemed like that child really needed a stuffed animal. Now I love seeing all the happy children, especially the babies.”

As Robinson’s mom Becky helped her replenish a table full of all things stuffed, a soft-spoken man holding a coat and warm boots he’d just found at the corner containing free clothing asked them if they had a spare plastic bag he could use. They promptly obliged.

Just before the second wave of guests entered those big orange doors around 12:30 p.m., that same man was spotted walking down Riverside Parkway toward downtown Rome, clutching two white garbage bags — one containing some Thanksgiving meals to go and the other carrying those warm clothes.

Next to the boots, a colorful stuffed toy could be seen poking its nose through the thin plastic as the man turned his face to the sun.

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