SOUTH PORTLAND – Like many cherished family traditions, the one started by the Hubbard family 17 years ago has caught on with people outside their clan.

Even the volunteers who helped Debi and Carl Hubbard serve up Thanksgiving dinner to hundreds of guests at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall on Thursday say the annual event has become a treasured part of the holiday.

“It’s all they’ve ever known for Thanksgiving,” said South Portland police Officer Jim Fahey, referring to his 14-year-old twin daughters, Dianne and Kayla Fahey, who have been joining their dad at the event since they were newborns.

When they were 5, the girls pushed brooms around the dining hall. On Thursday, they were serving up food to many of the 200-plus guests.

“This is different. But we have our own different tradition. We look forward to helping, and meeting people we don’t know,” Kayla Fahey said.

Aided in the operation by their friend Judy Levesque of Westbrook, the Hubbards prepare and serve a home-cooked meal donated by their employers — Evergreen Credit Union and Nextel Energy — as well as the South Portland Police Department and local businesses.

The whole thing “had an odd start,” Debi Hubbard admitted. “I was so tired of having to go to two sets of parents’ houses and disappointing (whichever house we didn’t go to). I said, ‘Let’s start feeding people who wouldn’t have somewhere to go.’ We’ve been doing it ever since.”

“I can’t explain what it means to me,” she said. “This is better than Christmas. It just makes me beam.”

Thursday’s feast included 24 cooked turkeys, mountains of mashed potatoes and more than 30 homemade pies displayed on a dessert table.

And who turns out to dig in? The homeless, many in need, many others just looking for company on the holiday. A school bus, donated for the occasion and driven by a volunteer, collected guests from local homeless shelters as well as homes for seniors.

The guests say the distinctive South Portland tradition doesn’t strike them so much as a charity event; it’s more like a gathering of neighbors.

Carol and Stan Reynolds of Westbrook, for instance, first came three years ago. They’ve returned each year to meet new people and share in the festive atmosphere.

“We come for the company. We talk of going to (a similar event) in Portland, but we can’t get away from this place. We’re both veterans. This is like going home,” said Carol Reynolds, 74, who served in the Army.

Others new to the gathering were impressed Thursday by the family-style seating arrangement in the hall, which was decked out like an elegant restaurant, with friendly volunteers serving the guests.

“I like what they have done,” said Thelma Hiscock of Auburn, who volunteered at the event along with her young family. “Rather than a line, they have people sit down to dinner. We wanted to help however we can,” she said. “We’ll definitely come back and do it again.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph