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Turkey for 700

Hundreds of families invited to attend Thanksgiving dinner at the Waterford in Springfield.

If cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 12 people seems like a big ordeal, imagine cooking for 700.

For the third year, the owner of the Waterford reception halls in Fair Oaks and Springfield is opening up his ballroom for hundreds of families for a huge Thanksgiving feast, to help out those served by the Salvation Army.

Keith Clark, who is also on the Board of Directors for the Salvation Army, said the dinner will be offered at the Waterford at Springfield this year, instead of the Waterford at Fair Oaks.

"This facility's bigger so we thought we'd switch," Clark said. Last year, over 280 people were served in Fair Oaks, but with a crowd of over 700 invited for this year, Clark figured the extra room may come in handy.

Even if 700 people are invited, there's no way of knowing how many families will attend, he said.

Clark and his staff of chefs and servers will begin to arrive Thursday at 11 a.m., at the Waterford in Springfield, setting tables from one end of the ballroom to the other with linen cloths and Wedgwood china. Families are invited to arrive at noon for the dinner.

"This has become a tradition for a lot of us," said Clark, who invites his family to help out at the dinner. "Many of our chefs and servers bring their families to help out before they have their meal."

THE IDEA FOR the dinner came from Clark, who was inspired to help out the less fortunate in the community after seeing people having Thanksgiving dinner on a day other than Thanksgiving.

"I thought, let's just have a big deal on Thanksgiving day," he said. "We'll give them a really nice spread and they can eat under crystal chandeliers."

In previous years, the Salvation Army would give out baskets of food or gift cards to grocery stores for needy families, said Capt. John Burton.

"We have a history of reaching out to the community," Burton said. "We want to see people able to have a nice meal when they'd otherwise not get one."

Burton said families still have the option of receiving a bag of groceries, but many choose to have the meal done for them. A total of 560 families requested baskets this year.

"This is the time of year when people are looking to help others," he said. "The Waterford provides the dinner free of charge, and the money we save from that expense is put back into helping other families."

Burton said he's grateful for the generosity of Clark and his staff for providing the dinner and opening his facility up to people from across the county.

"I think it's great he's willing to do this, to invite people in to sit down for a meal that wouldn't otherwise be available in this part of the county," Burton said.

Many of the families attending the dinner were referred to the Salvation Army through county organizations like Our Daily Bread, said executive director Pam Schadt.

"Families are referred to us by social workers or school guidance counselors, and they are referred to different agencies according to where they live," she said.

The number of families in need across Fairfax County continues to grow, and during the holiday season the requests for help are at their highest rate of the year, Schadt said.

"For those families who do not want to go to the dinner, we try to get them groceries or gift cards for stores like Shoppers Food Warehouse," she said. "We also have a family adoption program, where an individual or family can buy food or gifts for a family for the holidays."

Our Daily Bread is one of dozens of organizations that are looking for extra volunteers during the holiday season to make sure all their clients are assisted, Schadt said.

She agreed with Burton that the gift of a Thanksgiving dinner from the Waterford helps not only those who receive it, but also frees up money to be spent in other areas of the county on other needs.

"It's good for people to be able to participate in such a service to the community, especially during the holidays," Schadt said.

Clark agreed. "This is what it's all about," he said. "We try to help different charities during the year because the fact of the matter is, you and I and all our friends are spoiled. We've all been through tough patches, but compared to the folks who are going through really tough times, we've got it made," he said.

Plus, Clark added, it's a good way to start the holiday season off right.

"This is one of my favorite times of year," he said.