Bill Mitchell stood at the podium Thursday night at the Patterson Club in Fairfield, against a backdrop of his own words, temporarily emblazoned on the wall by interior designer Anne Pigue:

"Giving back to the community feels right ... It's who we are and who we will always be."

Bill and about a dozen members of the Mitchell family, representing three generations of the family that owns one of Westport's best-known stores, were there to receive recognition from Operation Hope, the Fairfield-based agency that fights homeless and hunger. They were hailed for more than five decades of service and charitable contributions to the Fairfield County community.

"They are all about charitable giving but having fun doing it," said Jeffrey Ruden, the chairman of Operation Hope's 12th annual Evening of Hope Gala. The non-profit Operation Hope, established in 1986, in addition to managing Fairfield shelters for homeless men, women and families, supports a community kitchen, food pantry and affordable housing programs.

The Mitchells are not just known for their philanthropy, but for the lavish fund-raising events they host in their flagship clothing store Mitchells of Westport. The events, including the more recent addition of the annual Pink Chairs/Pink Aid to award grants to breast cancer-related organizations, provide funding for Near & Far Aid, the Inner City Foundation, Jewish Home for the Elderly, Sacred Heart University, St. Vincent's Medical Center, the Staples High School cheerleaders' annual fashion show, and numerous other organizations and causes.

"There's hardly a person in this room who hasn't been touched by the Mitchells ... Even the youngest members of this family are brought up with the idea of service. It's service to your neighborhood, it's service to your family, it's service to your friends," said David Price, former New York TV weatherman and talk-show host, and the night's master of ceremonies.

Price said the Mitchells have a broad view of community service and "a proud tradition for us all to follow."

Michael Rosten, chairman of the Operation Hope board of directors, called the Mitchells' tradition "a long-standing, almost institutional commitment for their communities. We're delighted they include us in their umbrella of generosity."

Bill Mitchell said his parents, Ed and Norma Mitchell, instilled in him and his brother Jack Mitchell the importance of community involvement. "It really started from my mom and dad. You're a product of your parents," Bill Mitchell said.

"When my dad opened the business we had nothing," Bill Mitchell said. The business was founded "in 1958 with three men's suits, a coffee pot and a dream," according to the event program. Despite the family's lack of material wealth, Bill Mitchell recalled a day when a man knocked on the door of the family's home asking for money. His father Ed reached into his pocket and gave the man what he could.

He remembered his father telling him, "If you don't start to give when you have nothing you will never give when you have something."

"It's our responsibility to give back as a family, especially to people like this organization. We are so lucky and blessed," Bill Mitchell said.

Russell Mitchell, Jack's son and the company's co-CEO, said community support is in their DNA. "We grew up with this. You give back ... We all live here. We're in the community," he said.

Bob Mitchell, another of Jack's sons, said great traditions and shared values make a family stronger.

Among those in the audience of about 500 people to support Operation Hope and celebrate the Mitchells was Susan Davis, president and CEO of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport. "They are so loving. They give in so many ways to make so many people's lives better," she said.

As for the agency hosting the gala, "A lot of people think of Operation Hope and automatically assume it's a homeless shelter and that's it," said Charlie MacDonald, immediate past president of Operation Hope's board. "The reality is we have a food pantry that serves the greater community, a kitchen in the men's shelter and supportive housing. It's a holistic approach to ending hunger and homelessness."

Money raised at the gala, including through the live and silent auctions, will support the mission of Operation Hope: "that every person in our community will one day have supportive relationships, hope for the future and a place to call home," said Carla Miklos, executive director of Operation Hope. "We need to be that safety net, that support system for those who have nowhere else to turn," she said.