WESTBROOK — By the end of the day on Christmas, the volunteers at the Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church, 74 of them in all, will have provided Christmas meals for as many as 350 people – all of it free and with no questions asked.

Volunteer Catherine Fox serves gravy on a plate in the serving line during the Christmas day meal at Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church.

The dinner, which is served at the church, is one of only a handful of community meals that is actually offered on Christmas Day in southern Maine. And for volunteers like Nicole Steinhagen, it wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without it.

“I love being able to volunteer my time on Christmas and give back to the community that raised me,” said Steinhagen, 22, who has been volunteering at the dinner since she was 12. “Coming in and seeing everybody’s happy face – that really makes it all worth it. Christmas really is about giving and not receiving,” she said, noting that it may sound corny or cliche, but it’s the truth.

Volunteer Catherine Fox serves gravy to Gary Jamieson, a volunteer getting a plate of food for the wife of Stephen Pleau, right. “These people are God’s people. … They’re doing God’s work.” Pleau said. “God bless them.”

For Joy Knight, who is the church’s director of Christian education and the head organizer of the dinner, the day is the culmination of a process that starts in October and ends in the late afternoon on Christmas. She said when she finally gets to put her feet up at the end of the day, it’s anticlimactic but she’s happy.

“I think it’s a pretty glorious day,” Knight tells the volunteers just before they start serving the meal at 11:30 a.m. While the dinner is served until 1:30, volunteers will be cleaning up into the afternoon.

Knight started the tradition of the community dinner 11 years ago, and it has since grown into a regular event both for participants who come to eat and those who come to give their time. Knight said while many who come may not have another option for sit-down Christmas dinner, there are also families or groups of people who show up just to be a part of something bigger than themselves or to sit together and eat.

‘IT’S JUST GREAT’

In all, the volunteers will have served more than 100 pounds of potatoes, 40 pounds of carrots and, of course, the spiraled ham or chicken that goes with it. On the day of Christmas Eve, another slate of volunteers were busy in the church’s kitchen preparing some of the dessert – 35 pies of apple or chocolate cream. Other pastries and cakes were offered as well.

Visitors can get a meal with friends or family, or they can take out a meal or several to deliver to those who may not be able to get out on Christmas Day.

Dan Waite, who has been volunteering at the event for eight years, fills a coffee urn at Westbrook-Warren Congregational Church on Tuesday. The dinner is one of only a handful of community meals that is offered on Christmas Day in southern Maine.

Knight said people from all walks of life visit for the meal. Many come as much for the company and sense of community as they do for the delicious food, Knight said.

At 83, Donna Ames of Portland said she started coming to the dinner two years ago. The food is good and it gives her a chance to catch up with some friends before she heads into work.

Ames, who retired from Unum a decade ago, now works as a receptionist at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook. She said the timing of the meal is good, before she starts her shift that ends at 11 p.m. She said she likes to take the holiday shift so her younger co-workers who still have young children don’t have to.

“It’s just great,” Ames said of the food. “They do a great job and the people here are just wonderful.” Ames, who had finished up a chicken dinner, said she wasn’t quite done eating either. “I’m going to get into the desserts now,” Ames said with laugh.

‘THEY ARE DOING GOD’S WORK’

Other diners, like Stephen Pleau of Portland, said they haven’t come every year but try to make it a regular Christmas tradition. Pleau was dining with his wife, daughter and son-in-law from Saco.

“Coming in and seeing everybody’s happy face – that really makes it all worth it, ” says Nicole Steinhagen, 22, shown serving a drink. She has volunteered for 10 years.

He said the meal is reflective of the true meaning of the holiday for those who believe in Christ. “Everybody here is so upbeat because they know the Lord, and that’s great,” Pleau said. “They are doing God’s work here.”

Last year, a Christmas Day blizzard, the biggest the state had seen in 15 years, kept diners away, but not volunteers, Knight said. This year’s Christmas, clear and sunny, saw diners lining up early and wrapping around the entrance to the church.

Knight described the event as an ecumenical one, noting that it draws volunteers and patrons from other churches in the area, including a local group of Catholics who have baked the pies for all 11 years the dinner has been going on. Others involved aren’t even regular churchgoers, Knight said. “Many of these volunteers I only see on Christmas Day,” Knight said. “Some of them are church people, but many I only see at Christmastime.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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