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Christmas Dinner - Genesis Center

State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, right, greets Earline Clay, center, of Gary, and Cindy Pate, of Crown Point, on Monday at the Genesis Convention Center during the annual Christmas dinner in Gary.

A number of people were lined up against the wall watching Alvin McClain's fifth annual Loving and Caring Ministry Christmas Dinner Celebration in apparent awe.

They had been drawn in by McClain and his 30 volunteers' smiles, food and gift raffles, but appeared too shy to wade deeper into the feast at the Best Western Plus Portage Hotel and Suites.

McClain beckoned them to come closer and know him better.

He worked the crowd with hugs and greetings. "Love you brother. Good to see you. We have lots of tables and a lot of food in here," McClain said.

He was hosting one of two Christmas dinners for local families in need and travelers to Northwest Indiana. "Its my third year here," Becky Sanders, of Morocco, said. She said it started when she was staying at the Portage hotel and McClain invited her in.

Away from crowd, McClain acknowledged about mid-afternoon, "We've had about 230 come in, but I wanted 250." He said the money raised for his event will also finance a gift to a woman.

He said a fire that destroyed his family's Portage home just before Christmas 2011 inspired him to give back to the community.

"I do enjoy it. Its a lot of work. I'll rest later. I have a passion about giving these people Christmas," he said.

Nine miles west at Gary's Genesis Center, some 700 were feasting at state Rep. Vernon Smith's 30th annual Spirit of Christmas Dinner.

Smith has been representing the City of Gary and nearby communities in the Indiana General Assembly for 27 years. He served 19 years on the Gary City Council, received his bachelor's degree from Indiana University in 1969, holds advanced degrees in education and has been a principal in the Gary schools.

But on Christmas Day he was in the middle of the food line passing out ham and turkey.

He holds the dinner annually in the name of the holiday as well as two women who made a positive impact on his life — former Gary School Corp. educator Patricia Tillotson and his mother, the Rev. Julia E. Smith.

"The first we held was at Williams Schools, where I was principal. We only had about 100. We didn't have much money and it was an effort to get that first one started," Smith said.

He said good food and commitment to charitable works has helped the event grow annually. "As soon as this is over, tomorrow morning, after I've rested, I'll go out and find gifts at sale prices," he said.

Lynn and Jim Smit, who were among the more than 70 volunteers helping the Gary event's success, said they enjoyed their first time attending. "Its a very religiously oriented organization. There was a prayer and they told the Christmas story and Bible stories," Jim Smit said.

"I feel wonderful, helping those in need and bringing blessings to other people," Lynn Smit said.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.