At noon on Christmas Eve, the Red Andrews Christmas Dinner volunteers were in the home stretch of preparations for the annual event that feeds 7,000 people each year.
One of the large meeting halls at the Cox Convention Center used for serving the meals and delivering toys to children on Christmas Day had taken shape.
The kitchen, humming since Monday, had been cleaned up and set for opening again in the dark hours of the morning Christmas Day.
And, the organization still needs volunteers on Christmas Day from noon until 4:00 to help pack up the equipment that will then be stored for next year’s dinner.
Just come through the southwest doors of the Cox Center and walk straight ahead to the meeting hall to volunteer.
The main coordinator for all of it is Gary Goldman, city restauranteur and son of Eddie Goldman who works with his brother, Robert each year to keep the dinner alive.
Robert was a long-time volunteer and agreed to be the chair of the foundation that runs it in 2012 when it almost ended for good. Robert and the extended Goldman family are given much credit for the save.
But Rober waved off the praise when we brought it up.
“We can’t take the credit for that,” said Robert. “There’s a bunch of us, right? But, the biggest deal was the volunteers.”
The dinner was the brainchild of Earnest “Red” Andrews, a legislator and fight promoter who had compassion on those people and especially families who had no place to go on Christmas Day in the 1940s.
The story goes that Andrews fed six people in that first year.
But, the scale of the effort now has to match the 7,000 people who have been showing up each year recently.
Goldman told Free Press that starting yesterday they had cooked over 1,400 pounds of turkey and then enough green beans, potatoes, and dressing to go with it.
He has worked in the catering business before and has experience in turning out large, quality meals at once, which helps.
Volunteers Sean Cummings and his wife, Cathy Cummings have run their own restaurants for years, but the scale of the Red Andrews Dinner is far beyond their usual experience. It makes them appreciate Goldman’s experience even more.
“Gary is so calm. None of this gets to him,” said Sean Cummings. “Whereas, I’m in a panic because I’m used to serving 100 people.”
Stevie Shriver (feature photo) was in her first year of volunteering. She was putting the final touches on arranging the Christmas toys donated by a number of organizations for children who wouldn’t have any toys for Christmas were it not for the dinner.
She said she would be there tomorrow, too.
What does volunteering for the first time mean to her?
“It means a lot,” Shriver said. “It’s been a tough year for me. But rather than kind of wallow in how it’s affected me, I’m here to help those less fortunate people than me no matter what my situation is.”
In contrast, Becca Waggoner, daughter of Robert Goldman who brought the dinner back to life, remembers growing up helping with the dinner when her father was still volunteering in the old organization.
She’s been doing it every Christmas Day since she was five years old.
“The most magical part of this Christmas dinner for me it was … growing up and getting to be involved in handing out toys and really getting to connect with the community,” Waggoner told us.
She said the “most magical” part of her life-long involvement was having her own children grow up as a part of the event.
“And so, we have grandchildren — third generation — that are now serving every single Christmas,” she told us.