Joellen Kelley, 67, of Sebastopol has no one at home but her two cats, two birds and two goldfish. She never married and has no children.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Kelley was anything but alone as she and thousands of other North Coast residents attended the Redwood Gospel Mission's annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet. Kelley, who was recently laid off from her job as an activities coordinator for a Santa Rosa nursing home, said she couldn't afford to cook her own feast.

"The little Social Security check that I get every month, $620, doesn't go very far, so this is a nice way to spend Thanksgiving," Kelley said. "I'm one of these people that likes to get out and see what's going on."

The Thanksgiving Banquet, now in its 18th year, draws about 5,000 people to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where it has been held for the last 12 or 13 years. The holiday event utilizes many of fairgrounds' main exhibition buildings.

The turkey meal was served in the Finley Hall, while the Grace Pavilion hosted numerous services that are part of the event, including free haircuts, a food box distribution, free family portraits, arts and crafts and cholesterol testing. There was also a dental screening station sponsored by St. Joseph Health, Sonoma County.

After a brief session with a dentist, Sindi Roman, a 13-year-old Herbert Slater Middle School student, was told she had no cavities but that she should try to see a dentist every six months.

Sindi, who immigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, with her family only six months ago, said this will be her first Thanksgiving in the United States. She said she misses her friends and that she feels strange at school because she doesn't speak English very well.

"It's hard because I go from home to school and back home again. I can't go out at night," she said, speaking in Spanish.

Other activities and services included a foot clinic, flu shots and a coat distribution that handed out almost 1,000 coats and jackets. Many of those who attended the event are low income residents, and many are Latino.

Jeff Gilman, executive director of the Redwood Gospel Mission, said that the number of people served during the event, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., is limited to their capacity, about 5,000 people.

Gilman said that after 2008, the registration slots for the food boxes have been filling up faster. He said an army of about 600 volunteers and numerous donors who contribute services and, of course, turkeys make the event possible.

The Sonoma County Fairgrounds offers its space at a greatly reduced rate. Aside from all the donations, it costs Redwood Gospel Mission about $20,000 to put on the yearly banquet.

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or

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