'It's magic': Meal brings cheer to diners, volunteers
No matter the time of year, ECHO always has jobs for volunteers, said Marge Sell, the nonprofit's resource coordinator. To learn more, call volunteer coordinator Fran Brien at 608-754-5333 or visit echojanesville.org.
JANESVILLE Some might say the meal was the result of hard work and organization. Others might suggest that it was generosity and love that made it happen.
Marge Sell had another word to describe the annual Christmas dinner hosted Tuesday by ECHO.
"It's magic," said Sell, ECHO's resource coordinator and event organizer.
At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the community room at St. William Catholic Church in Janesville had been nothing but bare white walls and empty tables, Sell said. By noon, the room smelled of roasted turkey and glowed with Christmas lights.
As they have for many years, local band En Route Music played Christmas classics. Santa Claus worked the crowd, posing for pictures with small children and visiting with grownups. He looked a lot like Tom Brien of Janesville.
The event is a popular one for volunteers, said chef Stan Arnold, an instructor at Blackhawk Technical College. Since 2006, he and teams of students and former students have done the cooking for the meal.
"They start calling me in September, asking if we're going to do this again," Arnold said of his kitchen volunteers. "And they were texting me as late as 6:30 this morning asking what time I wanted them to come in."
Arnold and his team this year had prepped meals for as many as 600 people. Before noon, volunteers had served or delivered nearly 300 meals, he said.
Having a strong kitchen staff makes for a strong event, Sell said.
"They make me look good," she said.
A handful of families at the event are ECHO clients and share the meal out of necessity. Many others, however, come because they enjoy the company and the festive atmosphere, Sell said.
"We have a wonderful mix of people here," she said.
Because so many people help with the meal, volunteer Paul Botsford of Janesville found himself without a lot of work to do. He assigned himself to a role as greeter.
Botsford wore a green bow tie and cummerbund over his blue jeans. A red rose tucked into his black eight-point hat completed the ensemble. His duties, as he explained them, included welcoming diners, encouraging people to sing along with the band (by singing along himself, of course) sweeping the occasional lady onto the dance floor and drinking coffee.
Botsford's parents for many years volunteered at the annual event, he said. This was his second year doing so, and he was bursting with Christmas cheer.
Everyone should spend Christmas afternoon dining at the ECHO event, he said.
"You don't have to clean up after," Botsford said. "There are kids here and everyone is all smiles. You see lots of folks you know. Why would you stay at home instead of coming here?"
For many, the community meal is a way to start a new holiday tradition after the loss of a loved one. First-time volunteer Denise Weeden of Janesville was one of those folks. Pausing from her job as a server, she said she was amazed by the size of the crowd and the amount of positive energy in the room.
Weeden was matter-of-fact when she said she has thrown herself into volunteering since her mother died in September 2011.
"I wasn't going to stay home and have a pity party," Weeden said.
Suddenly, she grabbed a red and green napkin from a nearby table and dabbed her eyes.
"These are happy tears," Weeden said. "I'm so glad to be here today."