COLUMBIA — At noon Thursday, Almeta Crayton had 136 turkeys and 12 hams ready to serve anyone who was hungry for a Thanksgiving meal.
She and up to 40 volunteers had been cooking since Wednesday morning to get ready to feed more than 500 people at Stamper Commons on the Stephens College campus.
Crayton doesn't count them. She just feeds them.
Everybody Eats! is Crayton's annual Thanksgiving meal, a tradition in Columbia for 13 years.
She also organizes Everyone Eats! which donates baskets for families who have a place to eat but not enough money to purchase the ingredients.
Last year's sit-down dinner saw a crowd of more than 400, but Crayton planned for more Thursday.
When the meal began, about four dozen volunteers were scooping up mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, corn, deviled eggs, potato salad, cranberries and 10 different kinds of dessert. Crayton said so many people were helping that when she tried to join them, they told her to sit down.
Vanessa Stuart, who brought her two daughters, niece and sister to volunteer, said she was happy with the turnout.
“It enlightens everyone,” Stuart said. “It makes you know that people still care about the community.”
In the background, a DJ who came in from St. Louis, was playing Christmas music. Curtis Soul, who works for KXEN AM Radio, was also wearing U.S. flag suit and a patriotic hat from the 1994 World Cup.
Soul said he wanted to embrace the feelings of gathering and giving at the dinner.
“People gathering together reminds me of the holidays, so we’re playing Christmas music,” he said.
“This is Miss Almeta Crayton’s way of giving, and Christmas is about giving. So the two can go together.”
Dianne Lynch, president of Stephens College, said she offered to hold the event on campus after helping to cook last year.
“This is an opportunity for Stephens to recognize that we are a part of a wonderful, generous and supportive community,” Lynch said. “It’s a moment where we can turn over something we can offer, which is our facilities.
"Not just to our community, but to Almeta, who is really the patron saint of Thanksgiving in Columbia.”
Crayton was clearly overcome with emotion as she talked about how successful the tradition had become.
“Sometimes I have to keep myself from crying because I look at what I see as the real Columbia and the goodness of this town,” she said.
Lynch described the event as an example of how communities can come together.
“People want to help,” she said. “It just takes that one person who steps and says ‘here let me show you how’.”