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Salvation Army preparing for Christmas dinner
19th annual event provides cheer for less fortunate
Salvation Army christmas dinner
Members of the Turlock First United Methodist Church help prepare food for the Salvation Army Christmas Day dinner (Photo contributed).

For nearly 20 years, a Christmas miracle has taken place in Turlock thanks to the generosity of community members from all corners of the city willing to combine their efforts and make the holiday memorable for those struggling to make ends meet.

While in the weeks leading up to Christmas this effort goes into food boxes and toys given to families through the Turlock Together holiday distribution, the giving doesn’t stop there. The Salvation Army is gearing up to host the 19th annual Christmas Day dinner, where volunteers from churches, service organizations, scout troops and individual philanthropists turn the holiday into a true day of service as they prepare and serve a feast to hundreds of the lonely or less fortunate in town.

“Everyone’s invited,” Salvation Army Corps Major Debi Shrum said. “It’s something very special for those in the community who don’t have a home and don’t have a family to go to, or who may have a home but they’re all by themselves. There’s no reason anyone should eat alone on Christmas Day.”

The annual Christmas dinner will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army, 893 Lander Ave. in Turlock, and anyone who would like to attend is welcome. Those who would like to volunteer to serve the meal should show up at 11 a.m., 

The effort to provide a holiday meal in Turlock for those in need first began in 2000 and was spearheaded by Dorothy Walker, who felt called to provide the homeless and struggling families with a holiday meal that would not only fill their bellies, but offer a little Christmas joy. Since then, the dream Walker envisioned has come to life, with the traditional dinner served on linen-covered tables providing a fine dining experience for over 750 community members each year.

This year will mark the first dinner that won’t be overseen by Walker, as she moved to Colorado earlier this year. Walker has made several trips to Turlock in the meantime, however, making sure that the event will run smoothly in her absence.

“She’s done it so often and taught us so well that I think it will pretty much be the same,” Shrum said. “We will miss her, though.”

In the dinner’s first year, volunteers served 450 people on Christmas Day. The most-attended event ever was in 2012, when 1,000 people showed up for food. With an increasingly visible homeless population growing in Turlock, Shrum said those numbers could be reached again this year. The more people served, the better, she added.

“We have a year every once in a while where we absolutely serve every last piece of turkey, every last spoon of mashed potatoes and every last ladle of gravy, which is what we’re looking for,” Shrum said.

Putting together a sit-down dinner for nearly 800 people is no easy task. Prior to the event, weeks are spent collecting food donations and buying dozens of turkeys. On Christmas Eve, volunteers and local Boy Scouts show up bright and early at the Salvation Army building to set up tables and chairs while others are busy folding cloth napkins for each place setting.

On Christmas Day, volunteer chefs cook turkeys and green beans in the Salvation Army kitchen, members of All Saints Catholic Church boil and mash potatoes and First United Methodist members prepare the sweet potatoes and stuffing.

Dozens of other volunteers serve the meal and drinks, while children of guests have the opportunity to take selfies with Santa and take part in holiday activities and games.

The dinner has become not only an annual Christmas tradition for those who attend for the meal, but for families who volunteer as well. In total, it takes over 200 volunteers to make the dinner possible. Over the years, Shrum has seen the gratitude of the city’s less fortunate, as well as those who just may not have anyone to spend the holiday with, like college students.

“Every time I do it, when we get to the end and we’ve served people that are now relaxed, happy and having a good time, it warms the heart,” Shrum said. “You get more out of it than you give.”

The annual Christmas dinner will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at the Salvation Army, 893 Lander Ave. in Turlock, and anyone who would like to attend is welcome. Those who would like to volunteer to serve the meal should show up at 11 a.m., Shrum said, and those who would like to help set up for the dinner can come to the Salvation Army from 9 a.m. to noon on Christmas Eve.