2,000 expected at University of Pittsburgh's annual holiday meal in Oakland

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

James Russell didn't quite know what to expect as he spent part of Christmas Day at the University of Pittsburgh, watching volunteers scurry about serving food and gifts to the needy.

“The feeling of community is overwhelming here,” said Russell, 44, of Troy Hill, who attended to enjoy the festivities with a friend. “There are different cultures, different ages, standing side by side. It's just amazing.”

Nearly 2,000 people were expected on Wednesday at the Market Central dining area in Pitt's Litchfield Towers in Oakland for the eighth annual Christmas Day at Pitt. The event is the largest in the area to serve the needy at Christmas, according to the university.

Pitt, Sodexo dining services and The Salvation Army organize the event.

The number of attendees has grown steadily, from those in need and without anywhere to go for the holiday, to international students who didn't go home during the semester break. In 2011, volunteers served about 1,300 meals. Last Christmas, about 1,500 people attended. About 175 volunteers, many wearing Santa hats, were on hand to serve ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, eggnog, cookies, cake and other items.

“People are hungry,” said John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for community relations at Pitt. “It's amazing. This is an opportunity to give them a nice meal, give them a gift as they leave the premises. So the kids have a toy, and the adults have a scarf, a hat or a glove set as a present and a memento of this occasion.”

The gifts were made possible because of donations from Pitt faculty, staff and students.

Wen-Chyi Lin, 38, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Pitt, could not secure visas for himself and his children, Pei-Jen, 4, and Andy, 9, all of West View. Unable to return to Taiwan, the trio attended the dinner.

“I would like for them to experience Christmas,” Lin said, “and to see so many people.”

Rhonda Wasserman of Squirrel Hill, a Pitt law professor, ladled gravy onto turkey and mashed potatoes as people made their way through serving lines.

“It just feels good to be part of the community,” Wasserman said.

The event is one that Abdou M. Cole, general manager of Sodexo, looks forward to all year. Many of his fellow employees prepared food on Christmas Eve.

“It's like we are answering a higher call for those in our reach who are less fortunate on a day like today,” Cole said.

Shawn Andrews, 45, of Aliquippa has attended the event for several years through The Salvation Army, bringing his three daughters and other family members for a warm meal and gifts.

“It's always a good time to get together,” Andrews said.

Russell's friend, Lavaughn Moman, 26, of Troy Hill, was grateful her three children, all of whom received small gifts, learned a valuable lesson in generosity and fellowship.

“They want to come back and help out next year,” Moman said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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