When John Larsen lost his job after 45 years as a construction worker he never imagined he'd become dependent on government programs and free meals to survive.
"You never expect to be in this situation," said Larsen, 60, as he enjoyed one of the more than 100 free Thanksgiving dinners given out at Hale Harrison Cafe in Medford Thursday. "I've tried to get work but things are bad everywhere."
Hundreds of people across Long Island gathered Thursday at soup kitchens, churches and community halls to get a warm holiday meal. Many said the complementary helpings of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes filled their financial and emotional needs.
Larsen, who lives at a Gordon Heights boardinghouse, makes do with monthly help from the federal government -- a $320 rent subsidy, $200 in food stamps and $160 cash.
Monday through Friday, he said, he comes to the cafe, run by the Cornerstone Church of God in Christ, to get supplies from its food pantry and to eat free meals.
"The idea is to get out of here," he said. "I have to find work."
Bishop Hale Harrison, who heads the church, organized the dinner which was sponsored by the Richard and Mary Morrison Foundation.
"I'm blessed that they are here and that we can feed them," said Mary Morrison, 59, as she stood in what quickly became a packed dining room. "We're all one in this economy."
The Morrisons, of Wading River, who won a $165-million Mega Millions prize in January and started a charity soon after, served food alongside their six daughters and dozens of volunteers for hours Thursday.
Lillian Brooks, 50, of Gordon Heights, smiled as she filled a plate with the cafe's ham, sweet potatoes, cornbread and collard greens.
She began depending on Social Security checks after hurting her back at work last year. She had thought she'd be spending Thanksgiving alone because both her children, who recently took pay cuts, had to work.
"I don't have a lot of funds to play with," Brooks said. "I'm hopeful things will change."
Nearby, volunteers Richard Jones, 40, a professional golfer from Mastic, and his son Richard Jr., 10, passed out meals. "It's important for the next generation to see that we have so much to be thankful for -- to see caring and giving," he said.
In Syosset, at the North Shore Synagogue, Larry Sklar welcomed more than 160 people to the 19th annual free Thanksgiving dinner sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans Post 655, Giancarlo and Josephine Costa and Del-Mir Caterers.
Sklar, a member of the post, said fundraising had been more challenging this year. "Donations were a little off," he said. "But we raised enough. You want to make sure the holiday cheer is spread."
About 100 veterans, seniors and disabled people from hospitals and living facilities were bused or taxied to the dinner, Sklar said.
For Louise Reed of East Norwich, who came with her brother, the meal provided an opportunity to fill the void left by the deaths of relatives. "We don't have any family so we decided to come," she said. "They treated us really wonderfully."
Meanwhile, Larsen said the holidays should be a time to reflect on people like him who have financial woes: "People should realize how lucky they are. Hopefully this doesn't come their way."