Volunteers in Rock Hill serve up food and good will on Christmas Day

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comDecember 25, 2012 

Drifting from town to town without any family, Willy Wilson made a stop at the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen in Rock Hill on Tuesday to receive the only gift he’d likely get for Christmas: A plate of turkey, ham, corn, yams and green beans.

The food was free, as was the fellowship. And Wilson, who has called Chicago, Cincinnati and Cleveland and “maybe Florida next month” his home, ate and ate and ate.

“Just be thankful for what you get,” said Wilson, a 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran who said he has “nothing left” but insisted that he’s still seen “much worse than this.”

Wilson was grateful, and so was Kevin McDowell, 40.

“I’m thankful,” he said, chewing on pieces of ham and washing it down with sweet tea. When a volunteer asked a roomful of people if they wanted a plate to go, McDowell’s hand went up.

“It’s a blessing to come and get a meal,” he said.

On Christmas Day, 125 people went to the soup kitchen at St. Mary’s Catholic Church to get a holiday meal. Another 400 residents got the food delivered to their doorsteps by a bevy of volunteers who boxed food and snacks.

Last year, the soup kitchen fed more than 700 people during the holidays, said Travise Smith, who helped coordinate food distribution.

The number of people helped may seem alarming, Smith said, but some of those who receive food are elderly or sick and shut-ins unable to cook for themselves.

24 years of service

Since she was 15, Smith, now 39, has been delivering meals and volunteering at the soup kitchen on Christmas Day. Giving back is “one of those things my parents instilled in me my whole life,” she said. “You never know when you might be on the other end of that stick.”

Joining her Tuesday were her two sons, ages 11 and 13.

Smith, who arrived at the soup kitchen at 7 a.m., had no qualms about ditching what most might consider a Christmas-morning staple: watching kids unwrap a mountain of gifts.

This year – like every year – her kids got three gifts.

“Christ got three things, and he saved the whole world,” Smith said.

“Some people say, ‘You’re giving up your Christmas.’ This is Christmas for me,” she said. “That’s why you bring your family here. You’re still together on Christmas.”

Just ask Rock Hill’s Denise Hernandez, who for the second year in a row brought her husband, 11-year-old daughter, 20-year-old son and his girlfriend to the soup kitchen to help box and carry meals. On Tuesday, she wore a Santa hat and helped coordinate distribution of snack bags that went with every meal.

“You never know when that can be you,” she said. “You could be living good one day, then the next day, you could lose it all.”

Bringing the kids along just makes sense, said Hernandez, who, like Smith, wants to instill the same values she learned in her children with hopes they’ll carry on the tradition.

“They’ve always had so much,” she said. “They don’t mind giving to others.”

After leaving the soup kitchen, Hernandez said she and her family would embark on another holiday tradition. They would visit some of Rock Hill’s low-income areas and give out snack bags to the neighborhood children, some of whom Hernandez said probably didn’t get anything for Christmas.

“Those kids get so excited,” she said.

‘More about giving than receiving’

In a cafeteria, where dozens of people feasted on their holiday meals, volunteers stood by waiting to see who needed what. One of them was Caroline Khese, a Rock Hill resident who on Tuesday was a first-time volunteer at the soup kitchen.

“It’s very gratifying,” she said, listing her duties for the day, which included packing meals in boxes, passing out gifts and laying out desserts. “It’s more about giving than receiving. I think that’s what makes me feel the best.”

Working next to her was John Nigon, also of Rock Hill. Usually this time of year, Nigon is with his kids unwrapping gifts. This year, the kids are with their mother in Pennsylvania, he said, and he was at the soup kitchen on standby, wearing plastic gloves.

“It’s a great way to give in the spirit of Christ,” he said.

Times have been hard for “society,” Nigon said, adding that he expects it to get worse. “I think everybody has got to get in the spirit of giving and helping,” he said.

Lancaster’s Angela Plyler is no stranger to volunteering at the soup kitchen during the holidays. She said it was her fourth or fifth year. Helping out enhances her perspective.

“You get caught up in the Christmas rush,” she said. “This brings you back to reality. Christmas wasn’t meant to be stressful or bought.”

“I’m not missing anything,” she said. “This is the one thing I’ve looked so forward to” all year.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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