Volunteers dish out food, holiday cheer at 24th annual Community Christmas Dinner

Volunteers help fill a to-go box for guest Frank Janzen, of Lawrence, at the 24th annual Community Christmas Dinner on Christmas Day 2017. Around 1,000 people attended this year's meal, once again hosted by First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St.

Christmas dinner — and dessert — for 1,000? Easy as pie.

After starting out in the kitchen more than 10 years ago, longtime Community Christmas Dinner volunteer Irma Tresar has held the title of designated “pie cutter” for quite a while now. Down in the basement of Lawrence’s First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St., Tresar served up more than 900 slices Christmas Day as part of the annual event, which offers a hot meal and fellowship for anyone in need of a little holiday cheer.

“We always worry about whether we’re going to have enough pies or not,” Tresar says with a smile.

Tresar, decked out in a Jayhawk-themed Santa hat, truly enjoys serving others — in this case, very literally. That’s why she began volunteering with the Christmas dinner more than a decade ago. With her grown children living in California at the time, Tresar needed something to keep her busy on Christmas Day. She’s since had a few daughters move back to Kansas, but Tresar still volunteers every year just the same.

She enjoys the “community” of the free meal, which tends to attract a diverse cross section of Lawrence society. From those who attend every year with their families in tow to people who might otherwise be alone on Christmas, everyone is welcome.

Volunteer John Cantrell fixes up a plate for guest Bonita Yoder at the 24th annual Community Christmas Dinner on Dec. 25, 2017. This year's event drew around 1,000 people to Lawrence's First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St.

“That’s how I met Kirby here,” Tresar says, gesturing to her publicity-shy helper, another longtime volunteer. “He’s my right-hand man.”

“There’s no strangers here to me,” she adds.

Indeed. Throughout the afternoon, volunteers happily served up turkey and mashed potatoes in the meal line. Others rotated around the dining hall, chatting with guests and clearing away plates from tables topped with poinsettias. More still waited in the wings to deliver the hot meals around town.

Frank Janzen opted to walk over that afternoon from his East Lawrence home, thinking he’d get a little exercise and fresh air before chowing down. He’s attended the Community Christmas Dinner off and on for several years now and enjoys the camaraderie of it all.

“Seeing friends and just being in the community,” Janzen says, between bites, makes his Christmas. “And being able to thank the people behind the line there for their service.”

Janzen and his friend Bonita Yoder were some of the last guests to filter out of the dining hall Monday afternoon. Yoder, a Lawrence-based real estate agent, usually spends Christmas with family in West Virginia. But having spent much of the last month away travelling and making arrangements after a sibling’s death, she simply didn’t have it in her to make the trek to Harpers Ferry again.

“So, I’m taking a day alone to declutter and watch ‘The Crown,'” Yoder says.

That, and a short trip to First United Methodist, seemed perfectly manageable this Christmas. The day alone, with the exception of Christmas Day lunch with a couple familiar faces, offered a rare “treat” for the busy Yoder.

By the time Tracy Lingenfelser and her fellow volunteers began clearing off the tables early Monday afternoon, about 1,000 guests had come and gone. That’s a fairly low attendance compared to 2016, Lingenfelser said, adding that it’s normal for things to fluctuate from year to year.

The community spirit, though, never seems to fade. The mix of guests — young and old, rich and poor, black and white — is what makes this event “the most amazing dinner of the year,” Lingenfelser said.

“It’s the most amazing thing to see people from all walks of life sitting down and eating together,” she said.