Volunteers continue tradition of free Christmas meals in Alle-Kiski Valley
Paying homage to the true meaning of Christmas, volunteers quickly strapped on their aprons to cook feasts for those in need of a holiday meal and good company.
“It's just what I like to do,” said Marilyn McNally of Upper Burrell, who has been offering the free Christmas meals at the Oakmont Elks for the past 10 years — and elsewhere for longer.
The Oakmont Lions Club and others help make the dinner possible.
Three generations of McNally's family have served free Christmas dinners starting with her late grandmother, Mabel Walker, who owned a restaurant in Oregon frequented by “railroaders.”
“She closed the restaurant for Christmas but opened up her house for a free dinner to the men who worked for the railroad and were stuck in town working,” McNally said.
McNally remembers setting up card tables for her grandmother for those Christmas dinners.
Today, McNally spends her volunteer time on more specialized labor: making her elegant turkey dinner at the Elks.
“It makes my Christmas,” she said.
Eighty people came to the Elks on Wednesday. Many were alone.
“This is for people who need a place to be,” she said. “And it's like a family here.”
Pastor Karen Prescott of the Arnold United Methodist Church, who was set up to serve a ham Christmas dinner to 150 in Arnold, echoed McNally's sentiments.
“The whole idea of this event is to get the community together,” she said. “Those who would be by themselves — we don't want them alone on the holidays.”
McNally brought in Santa Claus, who sat with young and old alike, listening to wishes while diners could choose from their favorite cookies from platters brought to the tables after dinner.
Volunteers strived to recreate not only the flavor but also the atmosphere of the home-cooked meal.
At the Abundant Joy Fellowship in Tarentum, the aroma of baking hams and garlic-parsleyed potatoes wafted through the church, making everything smell like grandmother's house.
Pastor Greg Blythe put the hams in the church ovens at 6:30 a.m., planning to feed as many as 150 with an additional 50 take-out meals.
“This effort isn't just Abundant Joy – it's community folks and the parish,” said Blythe, who noted that volunteerism for the event has been increasing.
“More people want to do more with Christmas with helping another family,” he said.
Adding to the meal was a donation from the Streetlight Coffee House Ministry in West Tarentum of Lego sets, which were handed out to children.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.