Thanksgiving usually brings to mind turkey, stuffing and an easy chair by the television. But many Washingtonians yesterday showed that there are other ways to mark the occasion.

Across the region, churches filled with grateful worshipers, volunteers turned out in force to feed the homeless and greet senior citizens, and a few chefs strayed from the usual menu.

Alternately spooning large helpings of cranberry sauce onto plates and into her mouth, Leah Carlisle, 6, flashed a big smile at the crowd of people waiting for their Thanksgiving dinners.

"It just feels good," Leah said, an apron hanging down to her ankles and plastic gloves dwarfing her hands. "It's just good."

Leah and her mother, Judith, 40, of Annandale, volunteered yesterday at the Community for Creative Non-Violence annual Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, a bustling annual event on Capitol Hill that draws nearly 1,500 people. Carlisle said she and her daughter donate their time for more than just the warm feeling they get: She considers it payback.

Just a few years ago, the Carlisles hit bottom, spending several days in a Falls Church homeless shelter. Ever since, the pair volunteer regularly, hoping to give back a little of what they received.

"We do whatever we can to help other people out now," said Carlisle, a substance abuse counselor attending graduate school. "It's a big part of our lives. We know how much the community helped us when we needed it, and it would have been very frightening without that help."

The Carlisles joined dozens of other volunteers who helped prepare the meals, slice pies and serve food. After more than 25 years of handing out meals at the Capitol, CCNV volunteers for the first time served a sit-down Thanksgiving meal at the organization's downtown District shelter, offering the homeless a festive atmosphere and a reprieve from yesterday's rain.

The volunteer spirit pervaded the region, as numerous nonprofit groups saw to it that many who needed help or a visitor got it, along with some turkey and stuffing.

Food and Friends, an AIDS service group, delivered meals and groceries to patients. The House of Imagene in the District served dinner to the homeless and the working poor. And Ruth's Chris Steak House in Bethesda opened its doors to residents of Waverly House, an offshoot of Montgomery County's Housing Opportunity Commission.

At CCNV, several of the homeless said they appreciated the effort.

"It's really nice to be able to sit down and have a nice meal like this," said Frank Ivey, who has gone to the CCNV dinner for the past three years. "It's great that they're giving up their day to make this a real Thanksgiving."

For Eddie Robinson, 76, Thanksgiving was about flirting with Argene Carswell.

"I ain't never had a wife," Robinson struggled to say, fighting through the effects of a stroke with a twinkle and a smile.

"You been a bachelor your whole life?" Carswell teased back. "You mean no woman could tame you? Well, what was going on here?"

The banter lasted a few minutes. Then, Carswell and her 60 compatriots moved on to another floor of Arlington's Potomac Center, an elder-care facility housing nearly 250 patients. There, they began anew to laugh, chat, hold hands and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television with the residents in their rooms.

The group was part of Holiday Project, a volunteer organization that does what the name implies: visits the sick, elderly or imprisoned on holidays. The turnout was "extraordinary," said volunteer coordinator Sally Cooney, perhaps because of a new Internet site advertising the group. Or maybe there's just more volunteer spirit these days.

"I do think more people are volunteering," she said.

Even Katie the golden retriever got in on the effort, giving a tail wag to James Eichman, who uses wheelchair.

"I used to have a cocker spaniel," Eichman said, accepting a kiss from Katie, who was with her Holiday Project owners, Patricia and Rob Johnston.

Kathy Haddad was in her kitchen at 7:30 a.m. yesterday, whipping up cinnamon rolls for her guests, when it dawned on her: lasagna noodles. She had everything she needed for the homemade ice cream, the stuffing, the creamed onions. But she had forgotten the noodles for vegetable lasagna.

No problem, you're thinking. Who needs lasagna on Thanksgiving? Turns out Haddad did. Her brother is a vegetarian.

"I didn't expect to be here," Haddad said in the aisles of an Alexandria Safeway yesterday morning.

She wasn't alone.

"I just forgot," confessed Sheila Whalen, as she threw wine, cheese and crackers and the makings for salad into her cart.

Whalen usually is chief cook for her family's Thanksgiving spread but took a break this year. All she had to do was bring appetizers and salad to her mother's feast, but even that slipped her mind until Turkey Day itself.

Jerome Thorpe, a self-described "good cook," let the aisles remind him of what he needed. After awakening at 4 a.m. yesterday to start the banana pudding, he hit Safeway.

"I'm just deciding as I go," he said. "I'm just deciding what I'm going to make."

The turkey, of course, was a must-have, but he balked at the size. Wasn't there anything smaller than 20 pounds? Finally, he resigned himself to turkey leftovers, grabbing a 24-pounder.

"It might just be better to buy one of these big birds and be done with it," he said.

A new baby. A recent retirement. A triumph over a serious illness.

Worshipers from five congregations came together at Jerusalem Baptist Church yesterday, as they have every Thanksgiving day for longer than anyone can remember, to thank God and to share their blessings.

Several of the 100 or so people who attended the morning service stood to give testimonials about events that have renewed or reaffirmed their faith during the past year. They also sang, prayed and passed the plate for So Others Might Eat, a District food kitchen.

The Rev. R. Clinton Washington is celebrating his 31st anniversary as pastor of the church at 26th and P streets NW. Even before his arrival, African American congregations in Georgetown--whose residents during the first half of the century were predominantly black--came together for joint holiday services. The black churches have remained in Georgetown, and their members, Washington said, travel from other D.C. neighborhoods or the suburbs to attend services.

The Rev. C.J. Malloy Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church of Georgetown, gave yesterday's sermon. Members also attended from Alexander Memorial Baptist, Mount Zion United Methodist and Ebenezer AME, which several years ago moved to Fort Washington.

Joseph Patterson Jr., a member of Jerusalem Baptist since 1965, ushered. He said he has attended almost every Thanksgiving morning service. Yesterday he described why this year's is so special to him.

Last spring, Patterson said, he went in the hospital for "open-heart surgery, five bypasses." After surgery, he suffered a seizure and kidney failure.

"So you know I'm grateful to be walking these aisles this morning," he said.

"Amen!" the congregation responded.

As Washington prepared to close the service, he asked, "Don't you feel better now?" The worshipers erupted in applause.

"Now, I can go home to my family that the Lord has given me . . . and to the food that Mrs. Washington is going to fix!"

Nat Cooper bought his first restaurant this summer, a Denny's in Hyattsville. The African American businessman and Prince George's County native said he wanted to make a statement about a restaurant chain that has fielded a series of racial discrimination complaints and lawsuits in recent years.

"Denny's is not a racist company," said Cooper, who lives in Wilmington, Del., where he owns a restaurant consulting company. "They had some racist people who did racist things."

Cooper decided yesterday to make another statement, this one directed at fellow restaurant owners. He closed his restaurant to paying customers and opened the dining room to the homeless.

"I would hope other restaurants would see this and do the same," he said. "I have this dream for every one of the Denny's in this area to do this next year."

Members of Cooper's family and volunteers from St. Johns Free Will Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro greeted dinner guests at the door and served them heaping plates of turkey, green beans and mashed potatoes from a makeshift buffet.

LaNettra Jones, a church volunteer from Clinton, said the homeless guests were given "the royal treatment."

"It makes them feel a little bit more loved," she said.

Staff writers Jackie Spinner and Vanessa Williams and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Deacon William Gray, far left, of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Georgetown, welcomes visitors from Ebenezer AME Church to a Thanksgiving service for five African American churches.

CAPTION: Judith Carlisle and her daughter Leah, 6, left, serve up plates of Thanksgiving food at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter. The two had spent time in a shelter a few years ago, and they wanted to give something back.