CHESTERTON | Before joining their families on Christmas Eve, a group of volunteers and two restaurant owners came together and served others.
Together, they made a fancy, sit-down dinner at Chesterton’s Sage restaurant very special for families in need Tuesday evening.
Merry Meals, a Porter County nonprofit that provides free holiday meals to needy families, partnered with Joe and Melissa Gaal, owners of Sage, to host the free Christmas Eve meal for 125 people.
Diners relaxed while volunteers from Merry Meals and Neighborlink Porter County brought heaping plates of ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, corn and dinner rolls out from the kitchen. Dessert was cake and ice cream, and Santa Claus paid a visit to hand out presents to the kids.
“It’s priceless,” said Joe Gaal, who is also Sage’s executive chef. “Part of the reason I do this ... I have a 10-year-old son. We’re always asking ‘What are we getting?’ We want to ask ‘What are we giving?’ That’s what we wanted to teach our son.”
Mandy Moore founded Merry Meals in 2008 after she realized that lots of people needed help at the holidays. Moore used the opportunity to teach her children — especially daughter Rachel, 11 — about helping others.
“It was all about teaching my kids,” said Moore, of Chesterton. “My daughter has learned.”
Moore said Merry Meals and Sage have hosted the Christmas Eve meal for the past three years, and volunteers look forward to the event.
“People love it. They come back every year to volunteer,” Moore said. “This has become our Christmas Eve tradition. I look forward to it.”
Ralph and Faith Caron, of Valparaiso, served the Christmas Eve meal this year for the first time.
“We are very blessed to have Christmas with our family,” Faith Caron said. “It’s nice to give back and share.”
Jen Kerr and friends Jeff and Monica Harden also volunteered for the first time. Kerr is active in Neighborlink, an online clearinghouse where people can post information on people who need help and volunteers can sign up to help with projects.
Kerr said there is no shortage of people who need help, especially at the holidays.
“They come flying at me,” Kerr said. “These projects find me.”
Marisol Nunez, of Portage, dined with her daughter, Elizabeth Zamora, 10, and niece Emily Guerrero, 10.
“We don’t have the money and with kids, you don’t have time to go grocery shopping and cook,” Nunez said. “It’s nice for them to be kind and give us food.”
Gaal said he and wife Melissa plan to continue the tradition for years to come.
“As long as we’re here, we’ll keep doing it,” Gaal said.