Bradenton Salvation Army’s Christmas Day meal fills bellies, shows love in community

Cutting the slices of ham into tiny bites for her squirming 3-year-old son, DeAdra Sunset sat at the Salvation Army in Bradenton Tuesday for a Christmas meal.

“These meals, especially on Christmas, are nice,” Sunset said. “There are a lot of amazing people here. I see people I know and we’re able to have a little bit of family and fill our bellies.”

Sunset and her son, Dacian Sunset, moved to Bradenton about two years ago from Chicago. A survivor of domestic violence, Sunset moved to Florida to leave the abuse. She used to vacation in Florida as a child, and wanted to start over in a place that held fond memories.

With just enough money for a deposit on a home and the belongings she could fit in her car, Sunset and Dacian — just 8 months old at the time — came to the Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas looking for a place to live. They stayed in her car for about two weeks, until she signed a lease on a Bradenton home.

But it’s proven difficult to make ends meet, even with financial assistance, as her son’s medical issues keep her from having a full-time job.

“It’s tough with bills,” Sunset said. “He eats before I eat.”

At the Salvation Army, 1204 14th Street West, volunteers served plates of steaming ham, potatoes, and vegetables to the hundreds of people who sat at tables draped in red table cloths.

A Christmas tree glowed on one side of the room, while sunlight streamed through the windows and open door on the other. As people walked through the door, they were directed to empty seats.

Sunset and Dacian sat near the middle of the room with his stroller. Between bites she read to him and stroked his blonde hair, long enough that it was pulled back into a ponytail. Dacian was given a stuffed toy before they left.

With enough food to feed 500 people, it was an all-you-can-eat affair in the dining hall. Tom Giglio, food services manager at the Salvation Army, said they expected to serve 250 to 300 people.

“I’ve been doing this for five years,” Giglio said. “It’s nice to see kids come in with a smile on their faces.”

Gary Robinson, a lifelong Bradenton resident who stopped by the Salvation Army to eat Tuesday, said seeing so many people in one place with a good meal gave him a “good feeling.”

“I can see a lot of love in these people here,” Robinson said. “It shows people coming together. It doesn’t matter if they’re black or white or whatever. They’re showing love.”

Doors opened for the annual Christmas meal just before noon. Dozens of people strolled through the door and selected a seat at one of the many tables. About 30 volunteers served the food, cleaned tables and prepped for the next guest, a constant flow of activity.

Shirley Petrie has been volunteering with the Salvation Army for at least 12 years. She often helps with the holiday meals, and said most of the time, she sees smiles across the faces of those she serves.

This year, Petrie was in the kitchen, placing slices of ham onto plates.

“I just like helping people, it’s my contribution to the world,” Petrie said.

In addition to the holidays, she volunteers at the Salvation Army at least twice a week.

“It makes me feel very thankful for what I have,” Petrie said.