Christmas dinner at First United Methodist Church feeds more than appetites

Harriett Bannister, Lawrence, assists her son Evan, 6, in serving up mashed potatoes at the Lawrence Community Christmas dinner at First United Methodist Church. The two were among hundreds of volunteers for the annual dinner.

J.R. Demby, left, and his daughter Rianon Wallace-Demby pick up 18 Christmas meals to deliver to North Lawrence residents. The two were picking the meals up during the Lawrence Community Christmas dinner at First United Methodist Church.

Bob Taylor, Mary Louise Taylor and Grace Oshel visit over the Christmas dinner at First United Methodist Church on Saturday.

Hundreds of volunteers showed up at First United Methodist Church Saturday morning in order to make sure Christmas dinner was available to all. Some worked behind the scenes, packed in the kitchen, sweating, rushing to finish stuffing and corn for the hungry visitors. Others were dishing up to-go meals, loading them in boxes and delivering them to those who couldn’t make it.

Without volunteers, the free Christmas dinner would not be possible. The church has served as a host for the dinner for 16 years now.

Deb Engstrom has been a volunteer helping organize the dinner since the beginning. She said volunteers usually serve around 1,000 meals, both delivery and on-site. Close to 600 deliveries were scheduled for this year. With so many meals, Engstrom was glad to see that members of the community could donate time and money to help make it possible.

“We rely on the generosity of the Lawrence community to make this work,” Engstrom said.

Bigg’s Barbecue helped cook 55 20-pound turkeys for the dinner. Maceli’s added 45 hams and provided its kitchen to volunteers peeling potatoes and preparing other food. Engstrom said volunteers started showing up to cook around 6 a.m.

For her, helping with the dinner is what made Christmas.

“What makes this unique is all the facets of the community coming together,” Engstrom said. “We have families, retired people, homeless, people who are alone and everyone else you can think of here together.”

Les Hannon and his wife, Pat, have been helping deliver dinners for 15 years. Les, who is retired, said the dinner and the fact that they are involved in the community is what makes Christmas fun.

“At home we’d be reading or watching TV,” Hannon said. “Helping out makes us feel like we’re not on our own.”

For John Olson and his family, this was their first time helping with the dinner. Olson said the family realized it was a tough year for many and decided it would be a good year to give a hand and give back.

“In a small way we feel like we are helping — at least with our time and our labor,” Olson said.

The family spent the morning pulling apart turkey to separate the light meat from the dark, and preparing corn and stuffing. Olson said figuring out where to find utensils and working as a team was part of the fun.

One of his daughters, Noelle, a 10th-grader at Free State High School, said she learned you don’t have to use a knife to carve turkey. Noelle, who would have otherwise been at home sitting around watching movies, said she did not see volunteering as giving up her holiday; in fact, she saw it as making it better.

“I feel like a lot of people have forgotten the meaning and the message behind Christmas, and I feel like this can help bring that meaning back,” Noelle said.

Thanks to Noelle and her family and the hundreds of other volunteers, residents like Eddy Guge were able to enjoy a Christmas dinner like everyone else. Guge said it was his first time at the dinner. He said the generosity and effort behind the dinner really encompasses the Christmas message of sharing and giving.

“I wouldn’t have any other place to eat if it wasn’t for this,” he said. “It just proves that there are people out there that care.”