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Community serves free Christmas dinner to hundreds
Dorothy Walker instructs the Wilson family on how to set the tables and decorate on Wednesday at the Salvation Army for the Christmas Day meal and festivities. - photo by CANDY PADILLA / The Journal

Every Christmas, a miracle takes place right here in Turlock. Hundreds of community members from all walks of life put their combined efforts into providing a better holiday to those struggling to make ends meet.

The weeks leading up to Christmas this effort goes into the food boxes and toys given to families through the Turlock Together holiday distribution. But the giving doesn't end there.

On Christmas Day, volunteers from churches, service organizations, scout troops and individual philanthropists turn their holiday into a true day of service to help prepare and serve a feast to hundreds of the lonely or less fortunate in town at the Salvation Army building.

This labor of love began 15 years ago with the personal calling of one woman.

"When God taps you on the shoulder and says you need to do something, you say 'sure,'" said Dorothy Walker, the community Christmas dinner original organizer who continues to spearhead the annual event.

Over 15 years ago, Walker felt called to provide the homeless and struggling families a holiday meal that would not only fill their bellies, but offer a little Christmas joy. She envisioned a delicious traditional dinner served on linen-covered tables, giving a restaurant-style feel to the event.

The first year, Walker and her team of volunteers served 450 people on Christmas Day at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds. Two years ago, the event saw the most people ever with 1,000 meals served.

"The last person who came in the door got the last serving of food," said Walker of the year she called a "loaves and fishes" moment.

Pulling off a sit down dinner for over 700 people is not an easy task. The weeks leading up to the big day involved collecting food donations and then buying dozens of turkeys and, of course, pumpkin pie.

On Christmas Eve, members of Boy Scout Troop 21 arrived bright and early at the War Memorial to load up stacks and stacks of tables and chairs and then deliver and set them up at the Salvation Army building. While Walker and Salvation Army Major Debi Shrum coordinated the placing of the tables and chairs in the repurposed gym, a group of volunteers were busy folding the 1,000 cloth napkins that were used for the dinner.

On the day of Christmas, volunteer chefs cooked off the turkeys and green beans in the Salvation Army kitchen, while members of All Saints Catholic Church boiled and mashed potatoes and members of First United Methodist prepared the sweet potatoes and stuffing.

Dozens of other volunteers served the meal and drinks, while still others brought children to visit Santa in a room especially decorated for the jolly old elf's visit complete with a miniature sleigh. When the children were done thanking St. Nicholas for their presents, they went off to a number of rooms where volunteers had holiday activities and games set up.

All together, it takes close to 200 volunteers to pull off this annual event, said Walker. Some families have made volunteering their Christmas tradition, while others started a new tradition this year. For Todd and Bridget Wilson, and their children Kate, Sam and Peter, this was their first year helping out with the Christmas dinner.

"This is the first time we've done service on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day," said Bridget Wilson. "We're excited to be helpful."

Walker has long known the value of serving others on Christmas.

"The first year a homeless man came in and started crying because he was so grateful. That just made everything worth it."