Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
Guests at the 24th annual To Stratford with Love Banquet filled up with food and fellowship, and the massive team of volunteers who once again worked around the clock to make it all possible left satisfied as well.
For many of the 110 people who helped serve the roast beef dinner, dessert and drinks, the 60-70 individuals who helped set up the tables and plates and take it all down a few hours later, and the 15-20 people sweating it out in the kitchen, the final Saturday before Christmas is one of the first days they circle on their calendar.
“It’s always a wonderful evening,” commented Marion Boyd, who was helping out at her 19th dinner, held for the second consecutive year at the Rotary Complex.
Within the well-organized volunteer crew, Boyd was one of the captains. It was her job to get the food from the kitchen to the servers, and when something was running low to make sure it never reached empty.
It involves constant monitoring and running back and forth between the kitchen and banquet floor, but it’s a job she loves.
“It’s inspiring, and it puts me in the Christmas spirit,” she added with a smile.
Having been involved with the dinner since the beginning, Gary Dalby said the event hasn’t lost its appeal, and that he enjoys helping out in whatever way he can – he’s done just about every job at one time or another. This year he was working in the kitchen, keeping the meat warm and boiling the vegetables.
The dinner, he said, is such a large part of Stratford during the holiday season that he couldn’t imagine not being a part of it.
“If you want to be a part of the community,” he added, “you have to get involved.”
For other volunteers, like the seven young adults who came to help from Team Challenge, a faith-based rehabilitation centre in Lambeth, the dinner was an eye-opening experience.
Charlie Sanderson said it was heartening to see the community rally together and offer people in the community a place to go who maybe can’t afford a Christmas dinner or have no one to share one with.
“Being with Team Challenge I know there are people out there who are sleeping on the street or going to shelters for food,” he noted. “So this is awesome; everyone’s eating at tables like a family, probably something some of these people haven’t done since they were in their parents’ home.”
Seating was set up for 640 people this year, what would have been a record turnout, though there were noticeably some empty seats.
Organizer Richard Kneider was nonetheless happy with the turnout, and stressed the dinner wasn’t only for people who may find themselves on hard times.
“There are a lot of people who just want to celebrate the Christian fellowship of Christmas. That’s why we do it,” he said.
Looking at out the rows of filled tables, Kneider, who founded the popular dinner with his wife Ruth, said he still gets excited to see everyone come together to pull off the dinner. He gave thanks especially to the many businesses that contributed the food, which included roast beef, vegetables, baked potatoes and homemade pie and ice cream, noting over 90 per cent of the product served was donated.
“It really speaks volumes for our community that we can put on a dinner of this magnitude,” he said. “I keep saying we keep flying by the seat of our pants, but it’s been 24 years and we seem to keep on going.”
In light of recent tragedies in the United States and close to home, a moment of silence was observed for the families who will be without a child or loved one this Christmas, as well as for people living in parts of the world where there isn’t food in abundance.
Guests at the dinner were treated to performances by the Stratford Concert Band and local musician Steve “Yeager” Adair. Prior to the meal there was also a black-light show from the youth congregation at Bethel Pentecostal. And for the first time, photographers were on hand taking pictures, free of charge, in front of either a Christmas tree or nativity scene. The photos were developed during the meal so that guest could pick them up on their way out.
Crystle Knight has attended the dinner for several years and noted she is never disappointed with the meal. She said the event is a good opportunity to catch up with people she doesn’t get to see regularly.
Her seven-month-old son Kable enjoyed the black-light show, too, she added.
“He really enjoyed the music at the beginning. He was bouncing up and down.”