The line for the 71st Annual Red Andrews Christmas dinner finally started to dwindle at 2:30 p.m. Christmas Day wrapping up about six hours of serving 6,000+ people this year.
The dinner is a tradition of service in Oklahoma City started right after WWII to feed the homeless and those too poor to provide a Christmas meal for themselves.
Every year, people in need of some sort come to receive a warm meal in a warm place.
Others come for the fellowship, having found themselves alone on Christmas for one reason or another.
And the passion of volunteers to work hard on Christmas Day, sometimes in the face of their own sadness, seems to fuel the event for those in need.
Change it up
The serving line is the public-facing part of the event at Cox Convention Center in downtown OKC.
But, the kitchen is the engine room.
There, we found Cathy Latta, her adult children and son-in-law still pushing racks of cooking utensils and dishes into the big dish-washing machine.
“This is our first time to do this, and it’s been very good for us,” she told Free Press. “We needed to change it up and do something for others this year as a part of our process.”
The mental health therapist explained why.
Her husband died suddenly in September and this was the family’s first Christmas without him.
She showed a photo of him kneeling in front of the Christmas tree with a big smile from one of the many years past they had celebrated Christmas together, first as a couple and then eventually as a big family.
“Christmas was his favorite time of the year,” Latta told us. “So we had to change things up. If we had stayed at the house just like usual it would have been too hard for us.”
One of the daughters heard us talking and said, “I better get back to work. I can’t start talking or I’ll start crying.”
But it wasn’t just about them, even though their needs pushed them there in the first place.
“This is a good thing. I’ve heard about it for years, and so it’s great to be a part of something like this,” Latta said. “Now we know how to get involved.”
Traditions of service
Members of the Latta family were not the only volunteers for the dinner who said they first started as a way of getting beyond themselves and just their own needs.
Debbie Hogue-Downing has been a volunteer with the dinner for three years now. She started the year after her husband died.
“I do this now as a new tradition of getting outside of myself and serving others,” she said with a big smile. “It’s an important service.”
She is retired from teaching fourth grade in Shawnee Public Schools.
“I love seeing this every year,” Hogue-Downing said. “The kids are happy. The parents are happy. It’s great.”
Sean and Cathy Cummings have been the head chefs for the event for the last two years.
They both looked tired, but very satisfied. The two own side-by-side restaurants in north Oklahoma City called Vito’s and Bacon.
Their being in the restaurant business for years gives them a high level of skill in running the Red Andrews kitchen.
They were motivated to start volunteering at the dinner four years ago.
“You know, Cathy and I both came from huge families in Kansas City and we would all get together on Christmas,” said Sean. “Four years ago we realized our kids were out of the house, and it would just be better to start doing something truly good for others on this day instead of just doing nothing and missing our extended families.”
Cathy and Sean told us they have grown a lot and understand how people could volunteer for many years on a day that most would consider strictly reserved for “family time.”
But the difference is that many of the volunteers we talked to pointed to their children who were there helping hand out toys that had been donated, fruit and help with small table chores.
Outside of myself
Steven Davis, Jr. is a student at John Marshall High School enterprise school.
He said he valued helping with the event because “it gets me outside of myself and pointed toward the needs of others.”
His father, Steven Wayne Davis, was at the dinner helping, too.
The elder Davis has a long track-record of volunteer service having started a character-building organization for high-school-age students called “Making of Men.”
He has been energetically running that organization enough years that some of the students Davis first started working with are now serving as adult mentors.
“It’s about giving someone a great experience on your special day. That’s the biggest drive,” said Gary Goldman, founder of Cultivar restaurant and manager for the dinner the last six years.
He has been working in some kind of volunteer capacity for the last 15 years and brings his whole family.
He said his children “love it,” and he loves the impact it has on his family’s values.
“There’s a different level of appreciation for what you have when you come and work something like this,” said Goldman. “That’s the beauty of this.”