TURLOCK — Dorothy Walker hasnt had Christmas Day at home for 14 years, since she started the free Christmas dinner at Turlocks Salvation Army. But that was OK; her grandchildren didnt live close by so there were no little ones at home.
That was until last year, when her grandsons along with their folks moved back to the area. Walker, whom everyone at the dinner points to as its inspiration and reason for its success, couldnt give up the effort. But she was a bit nervous as to how the boys, then 4 and 6, would respond to spending the day helping out.
She neednt have worried.
I asked them later what was the best part of Christmas, and they both said, Feeding the poor people, Walker said.
They were back this year, with 5-year-old Evan Striplin handling duties at the dessert table, keeping it stocked with pies and cookies. He confirmed that he enjoyed taking part in the dinner, which has grown from feeding 460 people the first year at the fairground to 1,000 in 2012. They wouldnt know until later the number of people served Wednesday, but lines moved briskly and volunteers were kept hopping.
Over the years, planners have developed a pretty smooth system of operating the dinner, said Mike Monaghan, who has helped Walker organize it over the last several years. Volunteers were assigned various tasks, including table service, food distribution and dishwashing. Each table had a captain, who would bring guests in after they visited with Santa Claus, where children got a gift and a photo.
More volunteers served turkey, potatoes, green beans and all the trimmings on china plates, with real silverware, white tablecloths and linen napkins.
Walker remembered the first year, when a homeless man walked into the fairground building where the dinner was set up and saw the room set up like a fine-dining restaurant. He started crying and said, You did this for me?
More than 100 people gave up some or all of their Christmas Day celebration to help feed the crowd. Many of them brought their families, with children serving desserts or passing out packets of salt. Its a family tradition for some of the guests, as well, who return year after year for the dinner.
The Salvation Army and Turlock Together sponsor the dinner; local restaurants and bakeries prepare and donate food. Usually just enough of it, Walker said.
Last year, it literally was the loaves and fishes, she said, referring to the biblical story of Jesus feeding a large crowd from five loaves of bread and two fish. The last people came in and we just had enough to serve them. But we did it.