Monday December 24, 2012

ZEKE WRIGHT

Staff Writer

MANCHESTER -- Got plans for a feast come Christmas Day? Most do, but for those who don't, you're welcomed to attend a community meal in Manchester or Cambridge, N.Y.

Held at the First Congregational Church, Manchester's annual community Christmas dinner has been held for more than two decades, becoming tradition for participants from in-town and around the area. Relying wholly on donations -- of food, labor, space, and music -- volunteers feed over 100 people each year with no reservations required nor any charge for the meal.

"If you're not coming to this dinner, you ought to," pitched organizer Kaki Fisher, as there's no cost, prep, or cleanup involved. But, "the message I have tried hard to get out is it truly is a community dinner, and not a dinner for the needy," she said.

"It is your neighbor and your friends and your family."

All cash donations go directly toward the dinner, either this year's or next's, and Fisher said anyone and everyone is welcomed through the door -- but they should arrive early to grab a seat and have an appetizer. The meal begins service at 2:30 p.m.

In Cambridge, the Embury United Methodist Church plays host to similar tradition: For those working, visiting the area, without family or looking for community. One repeat volunteer and diner, Barbara Kingsley, said the meal exemplified the meaning of the holidays.

"We just love it. Our adult children get involved and our grandchildren help serve now," she said. "That's become our family tradition." Involved for the past four or five years, Kingsley's husband Phil now plays the role of greeter at the door -- so say "hi" and grab a name tag.

"It's what Christmas is all about," said Kingsley.

Volunteers in Cambridge also prepare meals for home delivery, functioning in part to fill in for the local Meals on Wheels program which takes the day off. Chris Catlin, who volunteers to take orders for delivery, said organizers could expect to send out 80 or so meals throughout the local New York area in Cambridge, Salem, Eagle Bridge, and Greenwich. She said the meal was advertised in advance at area food pantries, and the bulk of delivered meals are sent to senior housing.

"It's a wonderful way to spend Christmas Day -- reaching out to people," said Catlin, who said she always asked callers whether they'd like a ride to the sit-down dinner instead. "It takes the emphasis off the whole ... getting gifts."

"We do it as a family."

At both events, organizers say interested volunteers always outstrip demand. Fisher said a larger number of diners last year caused her to setup volunteers this year in waves. (They're all set.)

In Cambridge, "they just show up" to deliver meals, said Catlin. "There are always people willing to drive out there and deliver meals for us."

The Cambridge dinner begins service at noon Christmas Day. To have a meal delivered, call 518-677-2491.

For more information about the Manchester meal, call 802-362-5547.