Christmas Friendship Dinner dubbed 'best ever'
BY GREG JOHNSON
Published on Friday, December 25, 2009 3:34 PM AKST
WASILLA — Not even Sarah Palin could upstage Santa Claus.
As the former vice-presidential candidate served up mashed potatoes and turkey to a long line of hungry visitors, Santa was still wide awake after pulling an all-nighter delivering gifts around the world. Both were all smiles as they chatted with and served up food and presents to hundreds at the 18th annual Christmas Friendship Dinner at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center.
“No, no, no, not tired at all,” Santa said. “All that cocoa last night, and with all the cookies and chocolate, I’m wide awake.”
While Palin has been making national headlines since the release of her best-selling memoir, “Going Rogue,” there were no mobs of well-wishers, protesters or media. Many of the attendees were glad to see her and husband Todd participating in a hometown event, but said, at least on Christmas, Santa was the No. 1 celebrity at the sports center on Christmas.
“The food is good, the people are good and it’s good to see people you haven’t seen in while,” said Glen Butts. “And, of course, we have Sarah here. ... (But) I’d have to say Santa is the bigger celebrity. He’s going non-partisan, so I’d have to go with him.”
Lt. Micah Weinstein of the Wasilla Police Department reserves agreed. “Sarah’s a great lady, but Santa’s Santa.”
Behind the scenes, Bob Bowers has helped organize and cook for the Christmas Friendship Dinner since its inception. That first year, the dinner served 64 people at the Wasilla Senior Center. Last year, an estimated 1,500-1,700 was fed at Wasilla High School, and this year Bowers was prepared for 2,000 people at the sports center, as the event had outgrown the high school.
After 18 years of peeling potatoes and cooking in cramped, hot kitchens, is Bowers ready to pass on his apron?
“Heck, are you kidding?” he said. “I look forward to this day. This is the happiest day of my life when I get down here.”
This year, Bowers and a small army of volunteers helped cook and serve 63 turkeys, 60 hams, 600 pounds of potatoes, 50 gallons of gravy, 80 pounds of butter, dozens of large cans of beans and corn, and 600 pounds of carrots.
With more space and the kitchen facilities at the sports center, “This is the best year we’ve ever had,” Bowers said. “At the high school, they had to cook the potatoes out in front of the high school, and then they had to wheel them all the way back to the kitchen, mash them up, then haul them right back to where they cooked them. It took us all day.”
The Cowles family traveled from Indian with 7-year-old daughter Tilly for the dinner and passed the time playing Uno while waiting to help clean up.
“It feels like family,” Roger Cowles said about why his family has attended the past four Christmas events. “My folks live here and they peel potatoes and carrots. Last year, we came a day early and helped. This year we’re on the clean-up crew.”
While Tilly played Uno with her parents — “I lost the last hand,” her father said. “I was, like, hundreds in the hole” — her brothers were outside playing with a new toy they received at the sports center.
“We wouldn’t let them bring a football,” Roger Cowles said. “We said, ‘No, it’s going to be indoors.’ So, the gift they got from the giveaway over there was a football.”
Ashley Mills was one volunteer helping hand out presents to children at the dinner. All the gifts were donated, she said, then wrapped and labeled so each child would get a gift appropriate to his or her age and gender.
“It just makes me so happy to see them so happy about getting a present,” she said.
From youngsters visiting Santa one last time to seniors finding some companionship on Christmas, the friendship dinner was the place to be.
Barbara Rice lives at the Wasilla Senior Center and raved about the pecan pie.
“That pie, I’m not kidding you, is just delicious,” she said.
She also had warm thoughts for the local Santa Cop program, which payed her a visit earlier on Christmas.
“I didn’t even know about them,” she said of the Santa Cops. “They came in and said, ‘Are you Barbara Rice?’ And I said, ‘I am.” And he said, ‘We’re the Santa Cops and we’re here to see you.’”
She received a $100 gift certificate and several other wrapped gifts, Rice said.
“I was shocked a just the (amount of the) gift certificate, and I still have the gifts to look at too,” she said.
Kurt Karmer took a break from volunteering in the kitchen to enjoy Christmas dinner with his family. After three days of cooking to prepare, he proclaimed “everything” was the best on the menu.
“I just like bringing a little Christmas cheer to people, that’s all,” he said. “It’s been really good. The volunteers are great and (the facility) is beautiful.”
Sierra Hannan is a Christmas Friendship Dinner veteran. Attending since she was a girl, Hannan now brings her own children.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful,” she said. “It helps out the community, and it’s not just for poor people, it’s for everybody.”
Bowers said he gets more out of volunteering to make the dinner happen than he puts into it, but what really made him choke up was seeing the community fill the sports center.
“This is the gospel-honest truth,” Bowers said. “I have walked out there three times today, and all three times I had to come back because I had tears in my eyes. I was so happy and so overwhelmed with what I saw, it just makes my Christmas.”
Please enjoy my own personal photos below.
My daughter Cassie getting organized before the event
The table full of presents from Santa!
My sons Nick and Josh helping set up the Nativity
This is Kurt, who was mentioned in the Frontiersman article above
Some of our delivery crew. We were meals on wheels for today, and we had meals that were delivered to those who could not come to us.
We had volunteer firefighters helping out with meal delivery
We even had sugar free desserts
Kevin was awesome on the carrot shredder!
Some of our door greeters
Bob, on the right in the green apron, is an extraordinary cook and has been with the dinner all 18 years
One of our elves - isn't she cute?
Chuck Heath (center) with Angelina and LindaJo Klapperich
We had plenty of rolls - thanks to all who donated!
We had a nice selection of hot and cold vegetables
Servers with spoons up - at the ready!
People getting their plates filled
We had lots of great young people volunteering, and whole families
There were also servicemembers, young and old alike
Sally Heath talking to Chris, another great volunteer
My daughter Cassie and son Josh, taking a break to eat
Sonja and Gregory, who were running the first aid table
Our honor table, for those who have fallen or were not able to be there as they had in years past
We had a great turnout
This little girl was very happy with her Santa gifts
This young dad was very happy to receive a toy for his child. They dropped down right there on the floor in front of Santa to open it. They were all smiles!
We had some great families who provided sing-a-long entertainment
An overhead view of some people going through the food line
Many of you who follow my blog regularly found me through Twitter or Facebook or through some of the Sarah Palin websites. We were blessed today when Sarah Palin and her family came and devoted time to volunteering at the Christmas Dinner. Sarah and Todd, her kids, her brother and sisters, their children, and her mom and dad were all in attendance. Sarah came in and of course, there was immediate excitement. Sarah was gracious enough to sign a few items. I was working as the volunteer coordinator, and she told me she really wanted to serve so we set her up with Angie and she put her to work on the serving line. Everyone was very excited to see her, and for some it made this Christmas Day even that much more special. Sarah has a servant's heart and I know this is what makes her day as well. Sarah is her mother's daughter, and it was her mother who originally asked me to get involved. Chuck Jr. was so proud that his boys were able to participate and they all had a great time. Sarah's sisters and their families were also involved. Here are some photos from that part of the event:
Sarah's brother Chuck Heath Jr with his boys Kier and Teko. They were a big help!
Sarah arrived. You can see Piper and Willow in the left side of the picture
Sarah signed a few books and calendars
The head of the serving line, Angie, gave Sarah and Todd gloves and aprons and put them to work!
Todd and Sarah enjoyed serving
This special young man was excited to see Sarah, as were many
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