Christmas means many different things to different people, but there was a sole – or perhaps soul – purpose Wednesday in the hearts of all associated with a local event.
The American Red Cross 25th Anniversary Christmas Dinner presented by BI-LO at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church in Myrtle Beach and other sites was all about people sharing time.
From those having dinner to the greeters to the delivery volunteers to the cooks to the ones who got a much-needed day off, this meal was about spending Christmas with others..
“The meal is not about the food, but about the fellowship,” said Nanci Conley, director of the American Red Cross Coastal South Carolina Chapter. “We often don’t talk about it, but we are living in an area of transients and retirees. And so often people moves here as couples and one of them passes on and suddenly you have a person who’s alone and feeling sad and isolated.
“A lot of them are too proud to come, but they will volunteer as greeters. They will go from table to table talking and they’re getting a meal and having fellowship with all the tables. That is what this dinner is all about.”
The fellowship extends beyond those just at the church and other sites, however. For so many who give of themselves daily throughout the year to help others, the dinner affords them the opportunity of time to spend with their own families.
Programs such as the Community Kitchen, Meals on Wheels, Backpack Buddies, Street Reach, The Lighthouse and more can take a break, as Red Cross volunteers deliver about 3,500 of the more than 6,000 meals prepared to those homebound, in Hospice and even some in over-55 communities. Street Reach board member Debbie Connor said some volunteers will move over and work the Red Cross dinner too, but most are thankful for a break.
They’re not alone.
Deacon Peter Casamento works 10- to 12-hour days in his role as executive director of Community Kitchen, with an average of about 540 people having breakfast and lunch daily. Christmas is the only day Community Kitchen closes.
“This is why I’m here, I love what I’m doing serving others and it’s what I’m called with,” Casamento said. “It’s not a job, but a ministry. But I can’t tell you how excited I am and how grateful I am.
“I’m looking forward to the one day I have a chance to spend with my family and the Red Cross does a wonderful meal. I’ve heard nothing but good comments.”
Barbara Mains with Backpack Buddies doesn’t take any time off herself, despite the busiest time of year in her role with Toys for Tots, but knows her volunteers are thankful Red Cross provides a day off and hot meal to children who may not have one otherwise.
“You have families out in the country who have been laid off who can’t afford the gas to even cook the turkey,” Mains said. “[The Red Cross] brings them a whole turkey meal.”
Kathy Edens with Meals on Wheels echoes those sentiments.
“Red Cross is such a blessing,” Edens said. “Usually at this time of year it’s frozen meals because our volunteers are off, but to know that our clients are getting a good hot meal, especially on Christmas, is awesome.
“It’s a very, very kind thing [the Red Cross does] for us and our clients get this meal knowing someone took the time to deliver it. It’s nothing but a win-win situation.”
Preparation for the meal itself began more than a week before the Christmas Day festivities. The dinners were comprised of more than 6,600 pounds of turkey, 2,100 pound of sweet potatoes (purchased locally at a discounted rate through The Local Table and Dixon Farms in Aynor), 108 pounds of marshmallows, 950 pounds of bread, 2,400 pounds of stuffing, 2,000 pounds of green beans, 350 pounds of onions and 1,400 pounds of cranberry sauce.
Conley said the actual preparation had been going on for more than 10 days, and the care that those cooking the dishes put into it was amazing.
“They got through cooking and carving 60 turkeys and were using the leftovers of that to make their own stock,” she said. “They were making huge vats of gravy and pouring it into 5-gallon buckets. This isn’t just people throwing it together, these are chefs taking the time to cook like they would for their family, only they are cooking for a family of 6,000.”
Family, after all, is what Christmas and the dinner are all about.
Conley recalled a family she met at last year’s dinner at St. John’s. A woman had moved to Myrtle Beach to start a new life with someone. In tow she had brought her two children, looking to provide a better life for them and a fresh start on the Grand Strand.
Unfortunately, the person the woman who had come to be with left them here and took all the money, leaving the family penniless for the holidays.
The mother brought her children to the dinner, but not for the reason one might expect.
“They spent the whole day at dinner, helping serve, changing tablecloths,” Conley said. “She told her children she wanted to show them the true meaning of what Christmas was all about … what life was all about.
“She had no idea what she was going to do the very next day, but wanted her children to have good Christmas memories.”