A few hundred men and women form a thin, bedraggled line that follows the sidewalk from the Denver City and County Building along the edge of Civic Center Park.
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They slowly shift their way forward - for some it will take two to three hours - to a 23-table buffet nearly the length of a city block, laden with all the trimmings of Thanksgiving dinner.
Mikayla Sullivan, 17, stands near the end, her small frame draped in a black, wool coat, a gray Broncos cap sitting backwards on her strawberry-blonde hair.
She doesn't mind the wait. She's thankful for the food.
"We can eat," Mikayla says. She and her boyfriend are living for the moment in a pay-by-the-day motel. She smiles, holding an unlit cigarette between her fingers.
She's also thankful for her 11- and 12-year old sisters back home in Indianapolis. But when she mentions them, she struggles to keep tears from filling her green eyes.
"This is the first Thanksgiving that ..." Her voice trails off.
For six hours on this second Saturday in November, hundreds of men, women and children dine at tables covered in golden plastic tablecloths decorated with vases of fall flowers. They spread across a closed-off Bannock Street in front of the city's government building.
David Clifton Ministries in Lakewood, a nonprofit that works with the homeless and needy, has served this dinner for 19 years with the help of an army of volunteers. They are young and old. They ladle food onto plates and clean up and carry trays to tables for those who can't on their own. They help wherever they can.
"Water," a young woman with a nametag that reads "Savannah" calls out as she walks along the line with a tray of cups. "Water."
JoAnn Trudell, 63, reaches for one. "Thank you for taking care of us," she says with a smile.
JoAnn, shoulder-length white hair topped by a beanie of the same color, is here with her friend, Joyce Ann Schneider, 67. They pull an empty purple suitcase they hope to fill with food to take home.
"We're not homeless, but we're disabled," JoAnn says. "We don't make enough to make a Thanksgiving meal, to have Thanksgiving treats and special things - and this is just wonderful. It makes us so happy, like we're more a part of the human race."
Most of the diners are homeless. Some have roofs over their heads, living in subsidized housing or with family and friends, but - like JoAnn - say they are grateful for a meal they cannot afford.
Hunger. An anguish most of us don't feel. But numbers prove it is very real:
Nearly one in seven Coloradans faced times in 2013 when they didn't have enough money to buy food for their families or themselves.
More than one in five households with children faced financial challenges to put food on the table.
More than one in four working families do not have enough money to meet their basic needs.
That's according to Hunger Free Colorado, the state's leading anti-hunger organization.
And consider this:
The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative reported 5,812 homeless men, women and children as of January in the seven-county metro Denver area. And of the 2,230 men, women and children who were at-risk for homelessness, nearly two-thirds were living in households with children.
At the end of the buffet line, at an area of tables heavy with piles of jackets and shirts and pants, Heather Mondy, 38, searches for clothes for her three daughters.
"Mom, I like this one," a daughter shouts, trying on a beige, wool coat.
Heather lugs a second trash bag filled with clothes to the grass where her family rests. She and her children traveled from Golden, where she lives in Section 8 federally subsidized housing, "to hang out with people who are not going to be judgmental or mean..."
They enjoyed the dinner, but the clothing was a true blessing, she says. "I'm definitely going to be able to dress them warm... and cute this year."
A petite woman with sparkly sunglasses and long auburn hair, she is thankful for the day.
"I'm blessed we can still come together peacefully," Heather says, "and we still have heart for helping the ones who need our help."
At one of the tables, a 63-year-old woman leans back, eyes closed, swaying to the jazzy music from the nearby band.
Her late husband was a veteran, she says. A few nights a week, she stays with her son in his subsidized apartment. She spends the other nights at St. Francis Center, a shelter for homeless men and women.
"Right now," she says, "I'm looking for a permanent home."
She stood in line for three hours to partake of the banquet. The turkey. The stuffing. The green beans and mashed potatoes and gravy.
"I'm going to take some home for later tonight," she says, then laughs softly. "And breakfast in the morning."
She speaks with graceful elegance and asks her name not be used. She's been homeless off and on for the past six years. It's a weary struggle she hopes will end soon.
Yet she remains grateful.
"I'm thankful for my health and strength, for being able to walk around," she says. "Most of all, my spirituality. Faith is the expectation of unforeseen things. And that's what carries me on every day."
The sun begins to sink on the outdoor Thanksgiving feast. The line is no longer hundreds deep. Diners, scattered along the tables, linger, listening to the waning melodies of the band.
Simple expressions of gratitude tumble in the gentle darkness:
Jackie Russell, 53, homeless: "Being alive."
Mystic Aberle, 32, volunteer: "Having a warm place to stay."
Paul Winters, 47, on disability: "Being able to give God thanks."
Tami Bigandt, 46, volunteer: "That my daily needs are met... that I have food."
True thanks giving.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.
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