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Free Portage Presbyterian Christmas dinner shifts to reservations, drive-thru offering
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Free Portage Presbyterian Christmas dinner shifts to reservations, drive-thru offering

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Like most events in 2020, the Portage Presbyterian Church’s annual Christmas Day Dinner will shift away from its usual method of operations.

“This 22nd year is just going to be a little different,” coordinator Nancy Schaper said.

Organizers are asking that anyone who wants a meal contact them by Dec. 22 to make a reservation. Those who are looking for the traditional ham feast can call Schaper or the church to schedule their pick-up time.

The meal, which consists of turkey breast, ham, gravy, mashed potatoes, vegetables, cranberries, rolls, dessert and a beverage, has been a staple of the community for 22 years. Pastor Dave Hankins, who said he has volunteered since the offering began, knew the group would still offer it even in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused innumerable logistics challenges.

“At no point did they ever say, ‘No, we’re not going to do it,’” Hankins said. “It was just a matter of trying to figure out how we do it and how we do it well and best serve the community, and they came up with a very good plan.”

Though the virus remains a concern to health, Schaper said they wanted to organize an event with safety protocols in place to ensure people still had a full meal over the holiday, especially those who may not be traveling this year.

“We get as much joy out of this as the people do,” Schaper said.

The concept of the dinner was not just to provide a meal, but to enjoy the holiday with others. A core group of volunteers, roughly 30 Schaper said, still plan to hand out food, but it isn’t the same as singing carols and laughing at a large table.

“It’s supposed to be a happy time of year,” Schaper said. “It’s hard to imagine not having everybody down in our church dining room and having the fun time we always have.”

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They plan to greet every single person they serve, even as their faces are covered, whether they are handing them out at the church or delivering to those who are unable to leave their homes. Volunteers aren’t just congregants of the Presbyterian church, but community members who want to spend part of the day helping others, Hankins said. Volunteering at the dinner has become a part of his holiday tradition.

“For my family and I, this is Christmas dinner,” Hankins said. “This has been a part of our family’s life since the beginning. I think there’s a lot of people who do look forward to this because, not only for the sense of serving other people and helping other people, providing for other people, but just being able to make a difference in people’s lives.”

21st Christmas Day dinner in Portage is 'never a chore' for volunteers

Uncertainty has been a challenge in a number of ways for the event organizers. Most importantly, in the number of people likely to drop by between noon and 1:30 p.m. that day. Because more people might be staying in the city where they live or suffered an economic hit, she and fellow organizers haven’t been able to estimate what the turnout could be. They generally have about 280 people, Shaper said. This year, it could be more or less, which is why Shaper stressed that reservations are important.

“We’re just hoping it’s enough,” Shaper said of their meal planning orders.

It is also helpful that “some people just want to give,” she said, adding that city residents as well as Festival Foods and the Portage VFW have already provided monetary donations. The church is accepting donations and there will be a chance for those picking up meals to give as well.

Shaper said the people in need of help or a friendly gesture on Christmas day was too important to miss, which is why they adopted a number of safety protocols and continued with their annual event. For some, it may be not having someone to share the day with because they can’t travel or simply have no one. For others, a year of financial trouble may have made a large meal seem too far out of reach. Either way, Shaper said they want to be there to offer a hand.

“It’s necessary to feed their bodies and feed their souls,” Shaper said. “I think it will just make people feel better, they know they’re getting a meal. And, I guess, it’s Christmas. … We’re just concerned about people and we just want something to happen that normally happens. The Christmas dinner is anticipated and people look forward to it. It’s a fun time, it’s a thankful time.”

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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