At the Montfort School building in Katonah the gymasium is filled with tables laid with handmade mini Christmas trees, decorations, plates, napkins and cutlery by 9:30 a.m. The walls are adorned with 4' candycanes, and 2' wide snowflakes hang from the ceiling. The trees are trimmed, the stage is set (literally), and the the perimeter of the gym lined with gently used clothing, coats and shoes. A gleaming row of 50 silver steam pans stand at the ready.
All await the opening of the doors that heralds the arrival of the 315 guests who arrive to share a huge Christmas dinner, be handed bags of new clothing, shoes, coats or toys, and choose a bag full of gently used clothing donations. Each of the attendees will eat, be invited to join in holiday songs led by an angelic songstress, share a song or prayer on the stage and get to know their fellow diners.
It's the annual Westchester Community Christmas Dinner, bringing volunteers and guests from all over the county together on Dec. 25.
The menu includes local ham and turkey from John Boy's farms, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, gravy, stuffing, steamed green beans, rice, ziti with sauce and cheese, green salad, bread and real butter, all prepared by an army of local restaurants.
At 12:45 the food is served. Rosa flashes her huge smile as she returns to her table laden with several plates full of turkey, potatoes, green beans and sweet potatoes. She makes sure that Bea, the 93-year-old woman she is seated next to, and Iris have full plates, and insists on fixing one for me before talking.
"This is really good food. Eat," she says. "I'm so glad I'm in here. I didn't know I had to have a badge to come in. I just came with friends but I couldn't come in. I waited 20 minutes outside and then they let me come in."
This is definitely one of those holiday dining experiences that requires a reservation. Although 40 people didn't show up for their slots, nearly 60 people without registrations have shown up, and had to wait until extra tables were set up and their information processed.
Brian from New Rochelle sits across from Rosa, laughing, talking, and thoroughly enjoying the food. He was invited by the St. James church and says if he hadn't come to this, he would have just stayed home and watched TV alone.
Adriany lost her job three months ago, is a single mother of three children and has recently suffered from depression. Family Ties of Yonkers has stepped in to provide some support and try to fill in the gaps where an actual extended family would, for instance inviting her and her children to the Christmas dinner. Her youngest son Emanuel is asthmatic and her eldest has a learning disability and was born with a heart condition. Life is tough, but Adriany is thankful for the support, and just really glad her children are getting presents and a great meal for Christmas. Before we part ways, she gives me a big hug and says to "Keep up the spirit. And have a very merry Christmas!"
316 of the county's neediest individuals from across Westchester—from a range of circumstances—are well fed, given new clothes, a cheerful welcome the volunteer elves, and sent home with an extra meal, holiday fruits and candies.
If you'd like to be part of this amazing event next year, mark your calendar for next October to check for volunteer opportunites and open registration on the website.
Volunteers are needed all through November and December to prepare for the big day.
Event director Licia Sandberg is pleased with the involvement from the community this year. She says there are more people who have donated money, and volunteering is up—Christmas day was full just about as soon as registration opened and several hundred volunteer slots were filled quickly.
Three local schools donated chafing dishes and catering supplies. Local restaurants pitched in with food donations and to cook the donated turkeys and hams. Churches donated the tables. Eileen Fisher donated $1,000 to cover expenses. donated the gaffer tape to hold down the floor coverings. Nearly 200 volunteers donated their labor and cheer.