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by Ron Cruger
rcruger@san.rr.com
"Meeting Human Needs"
2013 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
           It was Christmas day and the almost 1500 individuals and families were lined up outside the wide, double doors, anticipating a hot Christmas dinner. I was inside scooping cranberry sauce into rows of paper cups, getting them ready to be placed on individual plates alongs ide the turkey, dressing, gravy, string beans, mashed potatoes, rolls and butter plus a healthy slice of pumpkin pie and a fruit drink.
           I had volunteered to help at the Salvation Army’s annual free Christmas dinner. Volunteers are informed that they must be ready to do any chore asked of them related to preparing, serving dinners or cleaning up.. There are no rules and no qualifications to anyone who wants to join the Salvation Army for Christmas dinner. If you hunger and thirst on Christmas day the Salvation Army will care for you. No questions asked.
          My next job was to place individual slices of pumpkin pie on separate plates. As I, and my 350 fellow volunteers on Christmas day, finished the preparation for Christmas dinner, the doors to the great hall opened and each individual, each family was personally escorted to their seat by either a volunteer or a Salvation Army official. Everyone entering the great hall was treated as a special guest regardless of their situation in life.
           Nearly 1500 neat place settings were awaiting the dinners. Hundreds of volunteer waiters and waitresses filed past the kitchen, loaded the plates and delivered them to the Salvation Army guests. Each guest getting the attention and service due a respected diner.
           The Salvation Army band played Christmas tunes as the volunteers made sure that every diner was properly and respectfully cared for and treated.
           My next job would be in clean-up, so I had a few moments to walk around the great dining hall and see the guests close up.
           Over on the left side of the hall a young man in a hooded sweatshirt sliced his turkey as he talked with the neighbor on his left, an elderly man in a wheel chair. At the same table a spare woman, appearing to be in her 40’s spooned mashed potatoes and gravy. She wore a loose-fitting red dress, topped with a T-shirt, sweat shirt and bulky green sweater. Her head was covered with a red, white trimmed floppy Santa Claus hat. On her feet were loosely fitting flip-flops. I asked her if she was enjoying her meal. She stopped eating, looked up and said, “ It’s hard to tell you what this means to me. I don’t have a home. I live in a doorway of an abandoned building downtown. Without the Salvation Army I would have nothing. No way I would have a Christmas dinner.”
          Down the row of diners a young mother with sad, worried eyes, watched her four children enjoying their dinners. She picked at her own dinner as she made sure her kids were enjoying theirs. The young mother’s hair was pulled back in a bun, tied with a thick rubber band. Each of her children wore an identical jacket to the others. Each at least two sizes too large. Probably given by a generous donor.
           Across the table a short, stocky Latino topped with a five gallon cowboy hat and wearing an imprinted T-shirt that read, “Keep the Faith, Baby!” was lecturing his fellow diners on the intricacies of living on the street. He was stressing the importance of safety and the wearing of warm clothes at night.
           As I made my way back to my post outside the kitchen area I walked by a teenage boy, with long, stringy, blond hair, wearing his baseball cap backwards. He wore a clean, white T-shirt, fashionable jeans and expensive looking Nike sneakers. I stopped to ask him, “Everything ok here?” He jerked his head around and focused on me. His eyes were filled with fear. I said, “ It’s ok, keep on eating.” He swallowed a chunk of turkey and replied to me, “ I’m sure glad to be here. I had to leave home last night. I live with my dad and he drinks a lot and he was going to beat me up. He’s a big guy and I was afraid he was going to kill me. I don’t know where to go.” I pointed to one of the uniformed Salvation Army soldiers and told the kid, “After you’re done eating, go see that man over there, the one in the uniform.”
           In a few minutes our next job would begin. My fellow volunteers and I were ready to clean up after the nearly 1500 diners were finished. I had found out that many of the 350 volunteers were working on their fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Salvation Army Christmas dinners. Many had also served as volunteers for the Army’s Thanksgiving dinners too.
           Dinners finished, all children with their parents headed for the lobby area where Santa Claus was awaiting them. Every child sat on Santa’s lap and heard him offer them a cheerful “Merry Christmas.” Youngsters and their parents went home with wide smiles and a wondrous Christmas toy, compliments of Santa Claus and the generous residents and businesses in the community.
          Salvation Army members personally thanked each of us volunteers as we left the building. We could feel their sincerity and Christian spirit.
          As I walked from the scene I knew that I would be volunteering next year, for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll be back because of what I took home from that extraordinary day with the Salvation Army and their special guests.
          I just hope that the young, teenage boy with the Nike sneakers and the backwards cap walked over to the Salvation Army soldier after dinner and told him his story.
          It would be the best thing that kid could do.