GARY | Before enjoying dinner with family on Christmas Day for the last 25 years, state Rep. Vernon Smith spends time with dozens of volunteers and hundreds of area residents seeking the comfort and camaraderie that accompanies a hot meal and gifts given with a smile.
At the annual Spirit of Christmas Dinner at Ivy Tech Community College, Smith and about 50 volunteers served Christmas dinner and distributed gifts to about 460 men, women and children Tuesday from Gary, Chicago and other areas of the region.
Smith said the celebration of Christmas "is not the end of the story" and it's important for people to not lose sight of the religious meaning of the day.
"This is Christ's birthday party and we're supposed to give them the best," said Smith, of Gary.
Joyce Price, who was born in Gary and is one of the event's organizers, said the holiday is about being "thankful and grateful" for the things a person has and she is pleased that the event attracts volunteers young and old to support it.
Many volunteers, such as Neal Coleman, of Chicago, see the dinner as an important opportunity to provide support to the community.
"It's part of my Christmas tradition because this is what my parents did in Chicago," said Coleman, who helped organize preparation of meals. "They gave back to the community on Christmas Day and other holidays."
Smith, the Rev. Dwight Pointer, Price, and Gelone Broadnax helped organize the first dinner 25 years ago. But one year before that, Smith said he was angry on Christmas Day.
He said prepared dishes to take to his mother's house for dinner in the afternoon, only to learn that the time of the dinner was moved hours earlier to accommodate a visiting sibling who had to travel out of town that day.
Smith said he was so angry and hurt that he didn't attend the dinner, but from that experience he learned an important lesson. Being the youngest of 10 children, Smith said he always had family around for the holidays, which was a blessing he said shouldn't be taken for granted.
"I do believe God was preparing me for this ministry," Smith said.
The event is dedicated to the memory of Smith's mother, the Rev. Julia E. Smith, who died in 1991, and former Gary school teacher Patricia Tillotson, who died in 1997.