Anyone is Grand Forks and area who doesn’t want to cook a big Christmas dinner has another option. For the 34th year in a row, the town will have a community Christmas dinner on Dec. 25.
This year the event will take place at noon at the Gospel Chapel. Preparing and serving turkey and the fixings for around 400 people takes a small army of volunteers. Coordinating that army this year is Paula Wolkosky, who has been volunteering with the dinner since the second year.
“The dinner is put on all by volunteers,” said Wolkosky. “It was started 34 years ago by a lady named Pat Gasston, who used to work for the food bank. She started the dinner as a way to give people a Christmas dinner.”
Wolkosky started as treasurer with the dinner the first year and continues to this day. In addition, she figures she has done every other role as well such as serving, helping out, cooking, etc. “It just turned out I ended up being coordinator,” she laughs. “I don’t know how that ended up happening. So I’ve been doing that for 10 or so years.”
The dinner, which is not affiliated with any church or organization, is organized and ran by a group of people who enjoy giving back to the community. It started humbly at the Legion with a quaint dinner for less than 50 people.
“It’s just a group of people who have kept it going on and on,” said Wolkosky. “They used to carve the turkeys in front of the people and put them on platters and then everyone would be served. That’s when we used to feed 50 people; now we feed 400. Now we do 18 turkeys and 68 kilograms of potatoes.”
Wolkosky added that they now offer pick-up for anyone needing a ride to the dinner. The Community Christmas Dinner feeds about 300 people on site and another 100 off-site through pick-up as well as delivery to both shut-ins as well as groups such as the police, paramedics and the border crossing guards. In addition, any leftovers are given to Whispers of Hope for their community kitchen.
“It’s now a true community dinner,” she said. “Everyone from throughout the community comes. It’s become a community event. We have people from all walks of life. That’s what I like about it. You see people sitting together from different backgrounds. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me, ‘If you didn’t have this I wouldn’t have a Christmas dinner.’ That’s why I do this.”
The volunteers start making preparations for the meal such as peeling potatoes, putting up decorations and getting desserts ready on Dec. 24 starting at 9 a.m. and continue in different groups until about 7 p.m. The volunteers then come in early on the 25th and start cooking.
“It’s all done by volunteer,” she said. “People from Grand Forks volunteer by giving money and by helping in person. I have a dessert coordinator, I have a publicity coordinator, I have a take-out coordinator. This year has been very hard because I lost five people who moved out of town. I haven’t been able to find anyone to fill those positions.”
Wolkosky is hoping people will come forward this year and be able to shadow the outgoing coordinators such as the kitchen coordinator and step in full-time next year. “If we don’t have kitchen coordinators, we won’t have the dinner,” she said. “I can step in and fill many positions but I can’t do kitchen.”
She said they are all ready to go this year but will need people to step up for next year. “There are still holes,” she said. “We can still use volunteers. We can always use volunteers as well as volunteer coordinators.”
The dinner will also feature an appearance from Santa after the meal and singers from the local choir.
“We have tons of food, tons of people, tons of good times,” said Wolkosky. “It’s very rewarding. We have volunteers who have been volunteering for the dinner for more than 30 years. It’s become a tradition for many families.”
Rose Gobeil was also involved with the Christmas dinner during the early days. She recalled that it began just for the Boundary Lodge. “It was for people who had partners at Boundary Lodge but didn’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “It just took off after that.”
Gobeil got involved in the second year and was a volunteer for 25 years. She said the reason she got involved was for companionship. “I remember one time we had no power and we had to do the dinner by candlelight,” she said. “Everyone enjoyed it.”
To help volunteer or more information please call Wolkosky at 250-442-2689 or volunteer coordinator Bev Vatkin 250-442-5753.