Volunteers bring Christmas dinner to community

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Tammy Smith (left) and Jayne Prew have coordinated the Community Christmas Dinner in Prairie du Chien for the past three years. For a behind-the-scenes video of preparations, visit the Courier’s Facebook page. (Photos by Correne Martin)

Trina Springsteen dumps precooked and cubed squash into a roaster with butter.

After a machine peeled the 200 pounds of potatoes, Bob Hamann (left) and Denny Kirschbaum, along with a few other assistants, cut the eyes from the potatoes and diced them prior to their cooking.

Curt Kramer and his excited little helpers, Carly, Josie and Sam, placed table cloths on the dining tables on Christmas Eve. Curt was happy to get his kids involved in such spirited community volunteerism.

By Correne Martin

Twenty turkeys, 14 hams, 200 pounds of potatoes, 600 dinner rolls, over 100 pies, four roasters each of squash, green bean casserole and stuffing, an industrial-sized bowl of cranberry sauce, and 32 pounds of butter. That’s how much food was prepared for the 500 to 600 diners who enjoyed the free Community Christmas Dinner in Prairie du Chien, Friday. About half of those people ate the home-cooked meal at St. Gabriel’s School basement, where the tables were decorated beautifully for Christmas, and the other half took carryouts or delivery.

On Christmas Eve, Thursday, several dozen volunteers, some who’ve helped since the beginning and others in their first year, gathered in the school basement to peel, slice, mix, scoop and pre-cook the food to be served on Christmas Day. They also decorated with red table cloths and poinsettia centerpieces (donated by Vickie and John Howe in memory of Betty Howe), laid out each place setting and wrapped presents for about 30 kids estimated to come. Leading the charge were Jayne Prew and Tammy Smith, who have run the Community Christmas Dinner for the past three years.

“We could not do this without all of the volunteers,” Smith commented. “It’s a good way to get all ages involved. Typically, the adults prep the meal and the preteens help set up and decorate.”

“I don’t know where else we could do this. We are so grateful to have this large kitchen to use,” added Prew, who, along with Smith, arrived at the school at 5 a.m. the day before to get ready.

Potatoes needed to be peeled and diced; the turkeys seasoned, cooked, cooled and sliced to be reheated Christmas Day; the pre-cooked ham sliced and glazed to be reheated the next day; the cranberry sauce mixed with half a case of mandarin oranges and juice, nine pounds of cooked Granny Smith apples, orange marmalade and 7UP; the stuffing mixed with sauteed onions and celery, croutons and eggs; the pies sliced; and about 300 cold carryout containers packed.

Mostly quiet, calm and focused, the group of volunteers filtered in throughout the morning to prepare for Christmas Day.

“It’s a great community project. I’ve always wanted to help and this year worked out well for us,” said Trina Springsteen, who was joined by her daughter Rebecca in getting the squash and green bean casserole into roasters and separating packages of buns into individual bags including one bun and butter packet each. “We’re going to stuff buns in bags until we drop.”

Also swiftly carrying out their tasks in the kitchen on Christmas Eve were Donna Knutson, who scooped cranberry sauce into individal plastic cups with lids, and Bob Hamann and Denny Kirschbaum, who ran the antiquated potato peeling machine (originally from Campion Jesuit High School) and diced the potatoes by hand.

“All of my family lives out of state, so it gives me something to do,” said Steve Zelewski, as he thick-sliced the ham.

Roy George, who assisted numerous men in organizing the tables, has helped with the Community Christmas Dinner since the days when it was at the Methodist church in town and Diane Koth, Debbie Morovits and Mike Kirchman coordinated it. “It’s a way to give back to the community,” he said. “I like to see all the families together as one big family.”

Curt Kramer placed table cloths on each table with a little assistance from his kids Carly, Josie and Sam. He appreciated the opportunity to get his young ones involved. “It lets the kids know Christmas is about more than just stuff,” he stated.

In another corner of the dining room Thursday, Carol Toberman was directing volunteers and organizing decorations. “A lot of hands make light work,” she quipped. “I just come in and start working.”

On Christmas Day, as the celebratory social event began, volunteers from local churches brought in various salads, and servers lined up outside the kitchen, ready for trays of food to be dished up at their assigned tables. At the school, diners enjoy the hot meal and good company, while half a dozen teams of two deliver to those wishing to eat at home.

“Originally, the idea was that no one should be alone on Christmas. It’s like Christmas should be. It’s the getting together, sharing and visiting,” Toberman noted.

Of course, when it’s all said and done, the school basement is cleaned up Christmas Day and everyone goes home with a full belly and a wonderful feeling in their soul.

According to Prew, donations are accepted the day of the meal but not required. Thanks to area church collections, a few business donations and private citizen contributions, after about two decades of the event, the dinner remains free to all.

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