The volunteers hovered around the tables, armed with pitchers and slices of cake. As the diners finished their meals — some laughing and talking with table-mates, others staring straight ahead focusing on their food — the volunteers were ready.
“Can I get you some more?”
The phrase echoed throughout the Salvation Army dining hall on Sunday night during the organization’s annual Christmas dinner.
A lot of us are drug addicts, and for someone to care about people like us is amazing.”
- Brandon Dawson, 28
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With over 300 pounds of yams and green beans, 35 cooked hams and stacked trays of desserts, the volunteer waiters serving dinner made sure none of the roughly 200 diners left hungry.
Brandon Dawson, 28, marveled at the kindness of the strangers keeping his lemonade cup full and triple-checking to make sure he didn’t want more cake.
“A lot of us are drug addicts, and for someone to care about people like us is amazing,” Dawson said. “I lost my kids, I went to prison for five years. Just getting up (on Christmas morning) is hard.”
Dawson’s impression of the Salvation Army is exactly what Army Regional Coordinator Dwayne Durham was hoping for.
Christmas and Thanksgiving are the two days where the community really sees our need because we have so many volunteers, but that need is present 365 days a year.”
- Salvation Army Spokeswoman Kelly French
“Every day we try to make people feel like they are valued, but especially on Christmas,” Durham said. “We want to make sure they know they are loved.”
But even as organizers sought to make Christmas special with a Christmas tree, present-stuffed stockings, and food served by waiters instead of cafeteria style, they said it wasn’t too different from what happens at the Salvation Army any other day.
“Christmas and Thanksgiving are the two days where the community really sees our need because we have so many volunteers, but that need is present 365 days a year,” said Salvation Army Spokeswoman Kelly French.
French said she told volunteers to remember the circumstances that bring people to their doors are not uncommon.
“This could happen to anyone. For many, it’s a stroke of bad luck. They need to be treated with dignity and respect and without judgment,” French said. “You know how expensive rent is in town. For some of these people, the money runs out before the month.”
For Eric and Amber Diaz, the money had run out before the month. The pair, eating Christmas dinner together at a table by the door, said they had moved to Manatee after Eric couldn’t find work as an electrician in Tampa or Sarasota. He said he was feeling hopeful about his chances and empathized with the people around him.
This means the world. I’ve never seen a place like this.”
- Eric Diaz, diner at Sunday night’s Christmas Dinner
“The hardest part for many (of these people) is not having family or a place to have their own. But then they come here and they have a tree, food, presents and people are welcoming them,” Eric Diaz said. “This means the world. I’ve never seen a place like this.”