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Christmas With Nick has rare small crowd

December 26, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Six or seven hundred Christmas dinner guests would be a swarm almost anywhere in Washington County.

Not at the Four Points Sheraton on Dual Highway, where it was considered a smaller-than-usual crowd on Wednesday.

After preparing a free turkey and ham Christmas dinner for the needy for 17 years, Nick Giannaris has come to expect 1,000 to 1,500 diners.

But this year, a storm that plopped up to 5 inches of snow on the Hagerstown area kept many people away. Greeters accustomed to long, bustling lines at the hotel banquet hall were often waiting and chatting instead.

Looking out over numerous empty tables - a rarity for Christmas With Nick - volunteer coordinator Ed Lough said an estimated 600 to 800 meals would be served.

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Last year, that figure was about 1,400 meals, he said.

Any other year, "from a quarter to 11 to almost 2 o'clock, the people coming in are constant," Lough said. "The line is out in the hall, with no break. It's just people, people, people."

The smaller turnout was unfortunate, but not discouraging, he said.

"Whether you feed one or 1,000, it's a success because that means somebody has the chance to get a nice, hot Christmas meal," Lough said.

He said the number of requests for deliveries was up, which created a strain, because there were about 100 volunteers, or roughly one-third the usual amount.

Some of the streets weren't plowed enough for residents to get out or delivery drivers to get in, said George Turner, the owner of Turner Van Service and Giannaris' co-host each year. He said it was the worst weather in the event's history.

There was so much leftover food that about 90 minutes before closing, Turner told people they could order take-home meals, too, touching off a brief rush.

Two weeks ago, Giannaris said he had second thoughts about continuing his longstanding tradition after reading that a man brought his wife to give her a break from cooking.

Turner convinced Giannaris not to give up the meal that has become a hallmark of Washington County goodwill.

On Wednesday, wearing an FBI hat in the hotel kitchen, Giannaris said he got many calls and letters of support for the dinner after he made his comment.

Outside the kitchen, though, Turner sounded ominous.

"When this thing started, it was really great," he said. "It's still great, but for all things an end must come. Whether this is our last year, I don't know.

"We both have grandchildren. We'd kind of like to wake up Christmas morning and spend it with our grandkids.

"Maybe others can step in. We've got the momentum going. We've got the Christmas spirit and others can carry the torch."

Giannaris said he got to the Four Points at about 7:15 a.m. - an hour after his team of cooks - and would stay until about 2 p.m.

Four residents of Walnut Towers and one Franklin Street resident eat Christmas dinner together every year.

Without the meal and the company, "I'd be home with my dog," Naida Miller said.

She sat across the table from her husband, Gilbert Miller. They were joined by Cortland Mead, James Twyman and Dorothy Jackson.

"I'd wind up cooking," said Mead, who lives on Franklin Street.

All were working on plates of turkey and side dishes of salad.

Jackson said the food is "always good."

"I think it's very important," Naida Miller said. "It's wonderful, especially for senior citizens and disabled people. It gets you away."

Marie Gifft shared a table with Dallas Fogg and his girlfriend, Robin Oney. All live in Hagerstown and are in a program run by Turning Point of Washington County, which helps people with psychiatric disabilities.

Fogg said they heard about Christmas With Nick from Turning Point and were encouraged to go for the first time.

Gifft, who was looking forward to getting her own apartment next month, said, "We should be thankful for ... dinners for all the families who can't get home or have nowhere to go. ... God bless everyone."

Dolly Woodcock, who lives in southern Washington County, hugged her daughter and snapped a group photo in the lobby.

Christmas With Nick is how she meets up with her daughters each year. Two didn't attend this year, but the third - Marsha West - did.

West brought her boyfriend, Jason Plunkett of Virginia Beach, Va., and their children, Christell, 5, and Manuel, 10 months. West's friend, Jessie Cleaver, came along, too.

West and her family were coming in just as Woodcock and her boyfriend, Bud Clark, were leaving.

Woodcock said Giannaris' dinner is a nice way "to keep the mothers and stuff out of the kitchen so they can be with their families."

Elmore Worthy of Waynesboro, Pa., said he always meant to meet up with some Hagerstown friends at Christmas With Nick, but hadn't gotten to it.

Worthy was eating with his wife, Milini, and their children KaLara, 5; Elizah, 3; and Daniel, 1. The children had toys they received in the lobby, where teeming tables held trucks, dolls, games and more.

Worthy said the most important thing was being with his wife and children, the focus of most of his energy. "I try to go to the extreme for my family versus anything else in the world," he said.

Next year, the Worthys will likely show up as volunteers, he said.

"I told my kids, 'There's thousands, millions of families without anything.' Our (Christmas) tree is flooded," he said.

First-time volunteer Brenda Bryan of Hagerstown was keeping the toy tables full. She said her aunt volunteers for Christmas With Nick every year.

Another volunteer, Tracy Fazenbaker of Hagerstown, stood watch over a table of wrapped gifts that had been donated.

"It's a lot of fun, and it's the spirit of volunteerism, giving back to the community," she said.

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