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Holiday Meal Helps More Than Hungry

<i> Carol Perruso is Opinion editor for the San Diego County Edition of The Times</i>

Maxine and Bill Wilson didn’t miss me last week when they fed thousands of homeless and down-on-their-luck folks on Christmas Day at the Memorial Recreation Center in Southeast San Diego. They were probably overrun with volunteers.

But I missed them, even though I enjoyed a family Christmas out of state. I missed the people I worked with last Christmas morning, their energy and their sense of giving. And the Wilsons’ ready acceptance of whatever the volunteers had to give.

The volunteers who showed up about 8 a.m. were met by a small army of other volunteers who had started work on the meal hours earlier. Some were mixing stuffing, others were peeling potatoes or cutting vegetables by the barrel. The floor was lined with scores of pans holding turkeys fresh out of the ovens at the 32nd Street Naval Station.

If the scene had been set to music, it would have sounded a lot more like something from Tin Pan Alley than “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

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Bill and Maxine Wilson have been feeding growing numbers of hungry people each Christmas since 1980. Maxine was not daunted by the prospect of feeding the 4,000 people she expected this year--or organizing about 150 volunteers plus her turkey-roasting “elves” at the Navy and the food-drive organizers at Solar Turbines.

She would no more turn away a volunteer than a hungry soul. In fact, she lets reporters put her home phone number in the newspaper each year. And she personally answers many of the calls.

Volunteers bumped into each other at the rec center in search of a task. We were men and women who appeared to be from both white- and blue-collar backgrounds, united that morning in a willingness--even a determination--to help.

Those who didn’t get an assignment simply found something to do: chopping, mashing, carving. Or wrapping presents or sorting a roomful of donated clothing by kind and, if possible, size. Stacks of perforated cardboard box lids had to be folded into makeshift serving trays.

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There is one Wilson rule for volunteers. The guests at this banquet are served. They don’t go through a food line, as at a soup kitchen or shelter.

It turned out to be a gift for the volunteers as well as the guests.

Scores of cardboard-tray-carrying volunteers went through the serving line dishing up generous, if not reckless, portions to deliver to the hungry seated at long tables outside.

Another group of volunteers dished up boxed dinners that would be delivered to nearby parks or other gathering places for the homeless. Vans and pickups lined up, and their volunteer drivers began to load the meals.

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Crises and problems were handled quickly. One hungry-looking man wandered into the food preparation area asking for a meal an hour or so before the serving was to begin. Maxine’s tone was more firm than gentle as she explained that he would have to wait. He didn’t talk back. But, when a coatless man wandered into the clothing room during the sorting, he was encouraged to pick something out. He left the building warmer by one jacket.

When the dressing preparers ran out of celery and spices, a volunteer with a car and a few bucks was found to make an emergency run. Another volunteer-- who knew the neighborhood--was sent along. After trying half a dozen closed markets, they found one that had the spices and some celery in reasonably good condition.

Eventually, the volunteers began to run out of things to do and began heading for their own homes.

After five hours at a hectic pace, it was impossible, on the way home, not to think of peace:

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“Peace on earth, good will toward men.”


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