Meet the dad who has handed out free Thanksgiving dinners for 44 years

There's plenty to get excited about on Thanksgiving Day: Football, family and food are a winning combination. But for one dad, Thanksgiving is a day to embody kindness and be a "beacon of hope" in his South Bronx neighborhood.

Marty Rogers has lived in the Bronx all of his 66 years, and now, his lifelong community has dubbed him "Mayor Marty" and "Saint Marty."

Rogers operates an annual Thanksgiving dinner at a local church, the Immaculate Conception Church. The dinner has been a yearly event for more than four decades.

"In 1977, there was a senior center in the church hall, and so a crew of us who were involved in the church said why don't we try to talk to the center and say, 'Could we ever open it up on Thanksgiving Day?'" Rogers told TODAY's Craig Melvin.

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Just like that, a tradition was born.

"This is our 44th year in a row, never missed, of a Thanksgiving dinner," Rogers said.

At first, the dinner only served senior citizens, but it expanded to include people experiencing homelessness.

"They come in the door, they get welcomed, they get a name tag," Rogers said. "And I get to play maitre d'. 'How's the food?' 'Is everything OK with you guys?' And at the end, they come around with seconds of pies. I love to see people (say) 'I can't eat no more.'"

The tradition even carried on amid the COVID-19 pandemic last year: Rogers, his family and local restaurants worked together to raise the money for a "takeout" version of the classic dinner. This year, they will once again offer takeout and delivery.

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For Rogers, it's a family affair. His adult children, Joe and Maria, have been helping out with the dinner and other community efforts since they were children.

"I was probably like, 5 years old, so I couldn't spell very well, and I was a waiter so I would walk around to people's tables and just draw what they ordered," Joe Rogers recalled. "I'd draw a little turkey … or create a symbol for cranberry sauce."

"To me, Thanksgiving has always been this big celebration with 250-plus people," he continued. "It was never anything but that."

Maria Rogers said that her father always emphasized community service.

"I would describe my father as someone who truly embodies the spirit of giving, in every aspect, and just knows the importance of community, of treating people with dignity and respect," she said.

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While the Thanksgiving event is Rogers' longest-running project, it's not the only one: He also operates a food delivery program called "Hope Walks," where he leads volunteers on trips to deliver food to people who are experiencing homelessness. During the pandemic, he expanded those efforts and now does them three times a week.

"When the pandemic came, no one (was) out on the street, it (was) a ghost town," Rogers explained. "But out on the street are all people who are homeless. They're not homeless people. They're people who are homeless. They fell into this condition. We don't know why and how, but they're people first."

Rogers told Melvin that when he's doing these walks and other community projects, he typically starts with a Bible verse.

"The scripture that we always start with is Matthew 25," Rogers said. "Matthew 25 is what Dr. (Martin Luther) King quoted. And Dr. King said, speaking of his own eulogy, 'When I die, don't tell them what school I went to. Don't talk about the awards I received. But I hope you can say that Martin Luther King tried to feed the hungry, to visit the outcast.' And that's what we're trying to do."

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