COLUMBIA — A record number of volunteers stepped up this year to preserve the tradition of Everyone Eats, Almeta Crayton's annual Thanksgiving meal for the community.
On Thursday, they were everywhere.
Former City Council member Almeta Crayton devoted much of her life to service in Columbia, particularly the First Ward. She was perhaps best known for her generosity at Thanksgiving, mustering volunteers to feed anyone who stepped through the door of her Everyone Eats community dinner. Crayton died Oct. 21. She was 53.
In audio clips from an interview in June, hear Almeta Crayton talk about what she believed in and why she worked so hard.
They registered guests and pointed them in the direction of the hand-washing station.
They lined up behind chafing dishes filled with turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, gravy, macaroni and cheese, beans, collard greens and pie.
They bused dishes and wiped tables.
By Thursday afternoon, 148 volunteers had officially signed in to help serve Thanksgiving dinner in Stamper Commons at Stephens College, with many more helping unofficially.
Altogether, more than 200 people volunteered to help set up, cook, serve and clean up after the meal, said the volunteer coordinator, Kathy Hull.
The number easily doubled that of previous numbers. Last year, organizers counted 60 volunteers helping with the meal.
It was the first Thanksgiving without Crayton, and for many volunteers, this year's dinner was a way to ensure that her vision lived on.
"People have come out of the woodwork because they were touched by what she did," Hull said earlier this week.
Between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., 425 people filled their plates in the dining room at Stamper Commons, about the same number as the past two years. Volunteers also boxed and delivered an additional 280 meals.
Steven Moeller, 54, said he was impressed by the number of volunteers, as well as the food. It was his first year attending the community Thanksgiving meal.
Moeller lives at Salvation Army Harbor House in Columbia and works as a janitor at the veterans hospital. He said he had heard nice things about the event.
He couldn't decide on his favorite Thanksgiving dish, so he listed turkey, mashed potatoes with gravy, yams and dressing.
"It's a toss-up," he said. "I'm gonna say the turkey. Pretty darn good turkey. Nice and moist."
Donnie White, 28, said he preferred the macaroni and cheese and planned to have seconds.
Melanie McCracken, 22, came with her family before heading to work at Hy-Vee. Her two children would eat a second Thanksgiving meal with their father later that day, so Everyone Eats gave her an opportunity to celebrate the holiday with her family.
Crayton's son, Tyrone, 24, was designated organizer this year to continue his mother's tradition.
He said he shared her dream, but leading the event made him nervous. He wasn't sure whether he would do it again.
Tyrone Crayton said he was overwhelmed by the number of volunteers who called him.
"They came to support my mama's memory," he said.
Planning for this year's event started on Nov. 1, two days after Almeta Crayton's funeral. Her family met with friends and community members and agreed to move forward with the meal.
They renamed it Almeta Crayton's Everyone Eats in her honor.
Previous Missourian reporting called it Almeta Crayton's Everybody Eats because of a misunderstanding among the organizers. Tyrone Crayton confirmed Thursday that it is called Everyone Eats, as it has been in previous years.
The steering committee of local organizations and community members said they faced challenges along the way. They got a late start, and they found it difficult to replicate Almeta Crayton's networking skills.
Over 15 years, Crayton had built community relationships to the point where donors would give her whatever she needed, said Janice Threat-Smith, a co-organizer. This year, the steering committee had to write letters asking for donations.
"Through her death, we lost her influence," Threat-Smith said.
Hull said Crayton left no lists or notes; she kept everything in her head.
"The force of Almeta's personality and her desires for the community and just her investment in the community" was the root of her influence, Hull said.
Almeta Crayton's older brother, Anthony, 55, served on the event's steering committee this year and said he planned to do so again. He also plans to become involved in his sister's other projects, such as the school supplies drive, her Easter party for children, and the Poor Man's Breakfast she held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
"It's real heartwarming to know that she was able to do these things for the community," he said. "I'm real proud of her."
Tyrone Crayton said the steering committee will begin planning for next year's event at the beginning of October.
"I didn't know people loved her like they do," he said. "That's why we can't let it die."