UNIVERSITY AREA — With pep in their steps and wide smiles on their faces, some 160 high school students from throughout the county scurried about in the University Area Community Center auditorium.
Outfitted in identical white Power of Giving-inscribed T-shirts, it was evident each had a purposeful role to play.
They were there to greet, seat and help serve a complimentary traditional Thanksgiving meal to about 800 invited dinner guests, as well as to pack boxes of foodstuffs as take-home gifts for every family in attendance.
The elite affair, which also included live music by the Phase 5 band and family photos courtesy of Shutterbooth, catered solely to low-income residents living nearby.
“I’m really happy I came,” said Hillsborough High School senior Jessica Powell, a volunteer recruited through the Ryan Nece Foundation, whose mission is to impress upon teens the importance and power of giving.
“You don’t think about it until you come here and realize that there are people who may not have things to eat on Thanksgiving,” Powell said.
The 7-year-old organization and its founder Ryan Nece — a former NFL player who played linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2002 to 2007 — hosted the annual event in partnership with Winn -Dixie, Metropolitan Ministries, Feeding America Tampa Bay, TECO Energy, the Junior League of Tampa and the University Area Community Development Corporation.
“My foundation’s purpose is to teach young kids to embrace the philosophy of helping others,” said Ryan, who noted his mother instilled in him a spirit of being selfless.
“I believe it takes a community to make a community good and I’ve been really fortunate to have great partnerships,” he added.
While the guests dined, Carolyn Riggins, a community liaison for Feeding America Tampa Bay, was hard at work under a TECO-provided spotlight just outside the center unloading crates of food and filling individual boxes. Each one was meant to provide a wholesome meal for a family of four.
“This is a mission, not a job,” she said. “At the end of the day it’s rewarding to hopefully have given people a hand up, rather than just a handout.”
Back inside, area resident Tina Smith, who was there with her six-year-old son Jeffrey Gant and friend Tikishia Jackson, summed up her feelings about the event in one word, “Awesome.”
“I’m really enjoying it,” said Jackson, as she peered over a colorful cardboard Turkey centerpiece at her table emblazoned with the words, ‘Give Thanks.’
“All my family lives out of town so this is my Thanksgiving dinner,” she said.
Miss Florida 2013 Myrrhanda Jones, strolled throughout the room in her tiara, catching the attention of most among her, especially the younger crowd.
“It’s so important to give and to make sure everyone has a good Thanksgiving,” said Jones, a senior at the University of Florida with aspirations of becoming a nurse.
“What Ryan Nece and his foundation and others have done here is a wonderful service to this community,” Jones added.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.