From two packed lines snaking through the auditorium at Clark Middle School, people emerged one by one, carrying heaping plates of turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and green beans.
The scents soon mingled with laughter and conversation as an estimated 800 people shared a warm room on a cold night in Mountain View for the second annual Community Fall Feast -- an event organized by the nonprofit The Children's Lunchbox that aims to feed families and bring the community together for a traditional Thanksgiving meal and onstage entertainment. Throughout the night, a beaming Cessilye Williams, principal at Clark Middle School, walked around the tables, chatting with families.
"Did you guys get enough to eat?" she asked a table full of students.
Williams and her staff ramped up outreach in an effort that included placing an automated phone call to parents Wednesday night. The Children's Lunchbox also distributed fliers in the area, said program manager Linda Kupers.
The publicity led to a noticeably larger crowd, Kupers said, with consistent lines and no table left unused. Students helped drive the turnout, too.
"He made everybody come," said Brenda Tibbetts, pointing at her grandson, 14-year-old Damian Landlord, who attends Clark.
Volunteers for the event included Sam's Club and Wal-Mart employees, JROTC cadets and staff and participants from the New Life Development Center, a program that helps former inmates re-integrate into society. The feast offers New Life participants an opportunity for community interaction and giving back, said Suzan Hathaway, the program's director of operations.
Jackie McNaulty, 32, a New Life participant, looked excitedly across the room.
"Seeing people smile, that's what it's all about," she said.
A full week before Thanksgiving, a sense of gratitude was already in the air. At one table, Paul Fox of Mountain View sat with a plate piled high with food.
In June, Fox's four-year-old son died of a blood clot in his brain. The medical expenses put financial strain on the family.
Both Fox and his wife Eva said the big meal was a welcome boon.
"This really helps," he said. "We couldn't afford most of what we need for Thanksgiving."
Also on their minds: Friday would have been their son's fifth birthday if he had lived.
"We're celebrating life," Fox said, looking at his wife and three other sons seated at the table.
Nearby, Sarah Warner's 4-year-old grandson Jordan walked up to her and looked at her plate. "Grandma, are you eating that?"
A year ago, Warner survived a stroke that left her disabled on the left side of her body. Recovery has been good but slow, she said.
"We're very lucky to have her here today, because we almost lost her to the stroke," her 24-year-old daughter, Eva Warner, chimed in, touching her mom on the shoulder.
As well as the food, a big draw for many was seeing and talking to others in the community.
Jeanette Gonzales, 71, who brought her two grandchildren to the event, lived in Mountain View as a teenager. She's since moved to Muldoon, but family members still live in the area. She pointed to her friend, Willie Davis, sitting next to her at the table.
"I'm going to cook regardless, but these are friends of mine, and we never get to sit and have dinner together," Gonzales said. "We are together and we're having dinner together."
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4314.