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A Christmas Community

For four years the Memorial Hospital of Converse County's Arbor Cafe has been partnering with members of our community to bring Douglas a free community Christmas meal. And as we round the corner towards another Christmas, preparations are already underway for this year's celebration renamed Billy's Free Community Christmas Meal in honor of the recently passed Billy Cathcart. But how did this effort start, where did it come from, and what keeps it going? We asked Felicia Masterson Smith of our Arbor Cafe and Hospitality Services to give us an inside look at feeding a community!

"The credit goes to the Mesa family. Val Mesa and her family used to own The Coop, and they used to provide the community Christmas dinner while The Moose covered Thanksgiving. And so they approached Karl [Hertz] and said, 'the fire department would like to partner, and they will buy all the turkeys, and asked would the hospital do the rest.' And can we host a free community dinner here? That's kind of what got it up off the ground," recalled Smith from her office on the hospital's first floor.

The Mesa family is still involved in the production of the meal, at times even multiple generations of the family have been present in the kitchen to make sure those in attendance and even home deliveries are fed amply! Joining the family to feed some 300-320 people are scores of volunteers from the Fire Department, the greater community, and kitchen staff. "We get all ages. It's fun to watch the kids serve. You know, come back and help dish out pies and tell people what flavors we're serving. We've never been short of volunteers," smiled Felicia. "One year we had a big group from the Christian Motorcycle Association. I put the ad on Facebook, and I've already had three calls for volunteers wanting to know how they could help and what time they can be here, so ... yeah, we have those that come every year, and then you have new ones. It's a lot of fun."

It may seem incredible that so many would come out on Christmas of all days in the calendar, but citizens of our generous town do indeed give with joy that most precious of commodities: their time. "As busy and as crazy as it is, everybody has fun, and they're laughing. One year we had a bunch of people in there singing Christmas holiday songs, and it was just so cool. It's a different atmosphere than our day to day stuff by far!"

Not only does this merry band of volunteers host those within the confines of the Arbor Cafe, but this joy goes out into the community as members of the Douglas Volunteer Fire Department deliver to homes all over the community. Felicia noted, "we realized some people, it was hard to get out, especially the elderly. So we wanted to make sure that those that didn't have family or were stuck at home or had no way of getting here didn't get left out. I think the biggest focus is that we're giving back. And so people get into that part of it. I think last year we did 100, maybe 119 deliveries." Each of those deliveries is pre-scouted and coordinated by a former member of dispatch donating their time and considerable knowledge of the various neighborhoods and roads around our community. Each volunteer gives of their gifts in a unique way to get food to those who need it on such a special day.

"You definitely can feel it in the air when you're in here. I look forward to it every year just because it's, to me, that's what we should be doing: giving back where we can, helping those who maybe wouldn't have got a Christmas dinner."

For those who would like to assist in volunteering for Billy's Free Community Christmas Dinner shifts range in two-hour blocks from 8:30 am through cleanup at about 3:30 pm on Christmas Day. The bulk of volunteers hours are used at the serving time: 11 am until 1 pm. If you would like to volunteer, please contact Felicia Smith at Memorial Hospital of Converse County at 358-2122. About 20-30 volunteers are needed each year, so even if you have an hour or so to give it can surely go a long way to helping others on Christmas Day.

For those interested in having or coordinating the delivery of a meal, please make sure you get your order in by December 23rd so that we can be sure to include your address in our deliveries and make arrangements. Again call 358-2122 and ask for Felicia Smith to arrange home deliveries. Thank you and of course Merry Christmas to you and yours!