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Nick's helpers share joy of Christmas

December 25, 2000

Nick's helpers share joy of Christmas



By ANDREW SCHOTZ / Staff Writer


The Neel family's voices saturated a teeming dining room Monday at the traditional Christmas With Nick community feast.

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Over a sound system, they serenaded about 1,300 to 1,400 people sharing a holiday meal at the Four Points Sheraton in Hagerstown. Diners took toys, cider and cheer home with them.

Nick Giannaris, the hotel owner, started the dinner in 1986 with the Community Action Council and George Turner of Turner Transportation, which provides free rides.

The U.S. Marine Corps supplies tables of toys, such as X-Men figures, Micro Machines cars and scented Kooshie Koos dolls.

Mid-afternoon, Giannaris said his cooks had prepared 35 turkeys of 25 pounds each. His after-dinner plan was to see his family in Harrisburg, Pa.

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Hundreds of meals were to be delivered to local people who couldn't leave their homes.

David and Janet Neel moved from Wyoming to Hagerstown in May 1999 so David could take a mining job in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Monday, they and their son and daughter-in-law, Paul and Jessica Neel, visiting from Utah, sang popular carols like "The First Noel" and "Joy to the World" a cappella during the meal.

They read lyrics out of pink pamphlets from David Neel's 1996 company Christmas party.

David and Janet Neel offered to serve food at the hotel last year, but "we just seemed to be getting in people's way," Janet said.

Now, they're content to serve harmony.

A legion of about 300 helpers did the rest.

Ruth Bookmiller is usually with her family in Altoona, Pa., for Christmas, but a work commitment kept her in Hagerstown.

She and three Phoenix Color co-workers in similar situations volunteered at the Four Points.

Bookmiller regularly gives blood, but it meant more to see the people she helps. "I think it's the start of something good," she said of her experience.

Rick Lee of Hagerstown read a newspaper article about the dinner and decided to help. He and a friend, Sean Soverns of Mont Alto, Pa., waited tables and filled dinner plates. Both first-time volunteers said they'll be back.

"I love seeing people, talking to people," said Shirley Davis of Hagerstown, a 10-year volunteer who greeted diners. "I think everyone is real appreciative."

Some of the visitors were wary as they approached the dining room - until Fred Kramer took care of them at the door.

"Eight! Eight! Eight!" Kramer yelled across the room, indicating with his fingers how many seats the group needed. Other volunteers sprang forward, calling back the number of open seats they had.

"I am the matre d' and the seater and the yeller," said Kramer, in his ninth or 10th year of helping out. "I make people laugh."

Another group stepped up for a table."Six!" Kramer called out. "S-E-X! Six!" Several people smiled.

Volunteer coordinator Ed Lough said the meal is for anyone looking for Christmas company.

That's precisely why Kevin Washington of Hagerstown brings his family to the hotel each Christmas. "It's (better) getting out and spending it with a lot of people."

Hagerstown native Janice Kelsh tries to bring a new person to the feast each time. This year, she came with Barbara Frazier, a friend she met at a health fair. Frazier was selling vegetarian calendars.

Kelsh spoke glowingly about Christmas With Nick.

"She really sells it," said Frazier, who found plenty to eat that wasn't meat.

Frazier said she has adjusted well after two years in Hagerstown. A disability forced her to sell her home in Beltsville, Md.

"I was heartbroken," she said. "Then, I came over the mountain and got glad."

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