A local group of givers looks for a leader to keep their generosity going.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
It takes 120 turkeys, 15 hams and some 500 pounds of mashed potatoes to feed the thousands of Monterey County residents who gather at the county fairgrounds on Christmas. It also takes hundreds of volunteers and donations—and one key person to tie it all together with a red, shiny bow.
The big day—the free community holiday dinner, approaching its 20th year—is almost a month away. The committee that coordinates the annual event is searching for food, donations and the like. And that one head volunteer.
Maggy Steele, who has coordinated the dinner for the last four years, won’t be there this Christmas. The group has some other big challenges, too. One of the regular chefs has moved out of the area. The woman who organizes the clothing donations—every year, there’s a huge table filled with second-hand clothing at the dinner—is ill. Ralph’s provided the hams, but now the grocery store has left town.
“Last year, I spread it out,” Steele says. “I went literally from small produce stand to small produce stand and got produce. I went to Denny’s and got potatoes. I went to Black Bear Diner and the guy who sells fresh produce on Fremont.”
Hundreds of local folks show up on Christmas and Christmas Eve to donate a few hours of their time to the cause. Everyone wants to work the line, serving food. “We need people to chop vegetables, too,” Steele says.
“We have a lot of people who come in and volunteer the two days of it,” Dec. 24 and Dec. 25, says Richard Hughett, who has been helping organize the dinner since 1990, “but we really haven’t gleaned some new people to cover these tops spots, and the job of coordinator. We can get people to donate plates, and trees, but putting all the pieces together—that’s the challenge.”
The dinner has gone off without a hitch for the past 20 years. And 10 years before that, volunteers also served Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch. That was back when longtime Seaside resident Sylvia Waldrup Quarles and her father organized the three meals.
“The original idea was to feed the homeless,” Hughett says.
These days, however, volunteers serve anyone who shows up. Santa hands out presents to all of the kids. Sand City police officers raffle off bikes. Local school kids decorate place mats and wall hangings that adorn the room. Musicians, clowns other performers provide the entertainment.
Some people at the dinner are homeless; some singles and couples don’t have any family or friends to spend the holiday with. Others simply enjoy the community spirit. Some years, big groups show up to volunteer, and then to eat dinner together. About eight years ago, Hughett says, Rupert Murdoch and his wife worked the line, dishing out veggies and sweet potatoes. Clint Eastwood has attended in the past, and local politicians often stop by.
Last year, the group served 1,500 sit-down meals, and delivered another 500 to homebound residents because Meals on Wheels does not deliver food on Christmas.
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When Steele signed on to work (for free) as the coordinator, she planned to do the event for three years. She ended up working for four. “My family’s had it,” she says. “They want me home on Christmas.”
Steele and Hughett have been meeting regularly since October, but now it’s getting down to crunch time, and they need to find someone to take the reins. They’re also about $2,000 short in donations.
Both Steele and Hughett have day jobs. They coordinate the Community Holiday Dinner Committee in their free time. They both agree that a retiree would be the ideal candidate for the post.
“Whomever takes this on—we have a pretty good timeline for him or her,” Steele says. “This person won’t be thrown to the wolves.”
“We’re looking for someone who’s retired,” says Hughett. “And I tell you, we become family, the crew of 15 or so of us core volunteers.”
After all of the guests have been served, the volunteers eat dinner together, too.
“That’s when we can finally bask in our success,” Steele says. But she’s growing increasingly nervous about this year’s event.
“It’s not insurmountable, but it will take all three of us”—she’s talking about herself, Hughett, and the yet-to-be-found coordinator—“to make it work.”
For information volunteering or providing food donations for the holiday dinner, call 648-8911. To contribute funds, call 373-3720.