COSTA MESA — The room was prepared just right for a family Thanksgiving — from the fresh flowers, to the festive tablecloths, candy strewn along the table and the smell of pumpkin pie in the air.
Guests stood up and told the crowd of about 150 people what they were thankful for. After each spoke, the room filled with cheers, applause and supportive nods.
Someone Cares Soup Kitchen Executive Director Shannon Santos calls her guests her extended family, carrying on the tradition of her grandmother and the soup kitchen's founder Merle Hatleberg.
Santos had placed the notepads and pens on the tables for the first time this year, hoping to pass on her family's tradition. As people waiting in line outside funneled in, it only took a few moments for them to see the pad and take to writing their words of thanks.
"I may not have what I thought I wanted but I have what I need," Mark Henderson, who's been homeless for several years, said aloud. "Even if we're struggling in life, we can help each other."
Merle Hatleberg started the soup kitchen in 1986 with one big pot of soup. Now the soup kitchen feeds up to 350 every day, seven days a week.
This Thanksgiving, they expected as many as 700 guests.
Santos said they've seen a 27% increase for the last few years, after the economic downturn.
Sometimes, she said, when she's coming into the soup kitchen, she mistakes a guest for a volunteer.
"The face of the hungry has changed," she said. "The perception of the people who come to a soup kitchen has changed."
The common thread between everyone that visits is that they are hungry and are in need of a meal, she said.
Board of Directors President Teri Hatleberg, Merle Hatleberg's daughter, said her mother always "instilled in us the importance of giving back."
Her mother had grown up in West Virginia and when times got tough; her grandmother took in boarders, many of whom were coal miners. Teri Hatleberg said she remembered her mother tell her stories of the family feeding the miners outside the door.
Merle Hatleberg was inspired to start the non-profit when she noticed local Costa Mesa school children in need of a meal. She never took a salary, Santos said, because she said there was always a pot of soup to be made.
Chris Dovey, 46, is an autistic artist and found Someone Cares when he started struggling financially. He has made prints for the soup kitchen, which they've auctioned off at their fundraisers.
In line for his second helping of turkey, Dovey said he couldn't feel more at home.
"They're like family," he said. "I always come here for Thanksgiving. It's a tradition."
Joan Ellis, 82, has been coming to the soup kitchen for years. She's not hard to spot, neon colored highlights in her white hair. Her friend is a hair stylist, she said.
Yesterday, someone asked her where she was spending Thanksgiving with her boyfriend and she told them. The person told Ellis she was sorry she didn't have a place to go.
"I said 'Believe me, I have the best place in the world to go'," she said. Ellis counted off all the things she loves about the soup kitchen — such as good friends and good food.
As the family carries on Merle Hatleberg's legacy, Santos said they'll follow her maxim.
"She said she would keep going until she opened the doors and no one was there."
For more information about Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, visit someonecareskitchen.org.