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Volunteers continue tradition of free Christmas meals in Alle-Kiski Valley

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 2:10 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
An Apollo couple, Ed Camp, left, and his fiance Janet Blystone, help out during the annual Christmas dinner at Arnold United Methodist Church on Leishman Avenue in Arnold on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Imogene Savage of Arnold visits Santa's helper, Jim Bayne of New Kensington, at the Arnold United Methodist Church Christmas dinner on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Highlands High School students Brett Campbell, 15, left, and her twin brother Braden pay it foward by helping out during a free Christmas dinner at the Abundant Joy Fellowship church in Tarentum on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013. The twins' mother, Marsha Campbell, said the family was looking for a way to return some of the community kindness that was generated for Jeff Grossman, the twins' uncle, who suffered a severe head injury after a fall in Feburary of 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Don Worf (left), his wife, Rhoda Worf, Derek Delach and Al Delach pass a plate across the counter to a fellow volunteer during the community Christmas dinner at the Oakmont Elks on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Volunteer Marilyn McNally (standing) stops by a table to visit with Ed Young and Barb Williams at the Oakmont Elks' community Christmas dinner on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
The Bower sisters of Lower Burrell - Hailey, 12, left, and 10-year-old Kayley - sit on the lap of Santa's helper, Jim Bayne of New Kensington, and watch as their 2-year-old sister Rayley shows her uncertainty about sitting on his lap. The group was participating in the Christmas dinner at Arnold United Methodist Church on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013.

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 mthomas@tribweb.com.

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