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Local church serves hot meal and warmth

December 26, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - After filling up on a free Christmas meal Saturday, Mitchel LeRoy said Hagerstown's giving spirit is impressive.

"I've never seen a town help out the homeless" so much, he said.

The meal was courtesy of Bethel Assembly of God Church on Wilson Boulevard in Hagerstown - a charitable tradition that started in 1998.

As he waited for a free ride downtown, LeRoy said he spent time in Hagerstown about four years ago. He recently decided to come back to rebuild his life, so he left Oklahoma on a bus.

During a stop in St. Louis, someone robbed him of $1,750 - virtually all he was worth - at gunpoint, he said.

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Now, he's staying at a shelter run by Religious Effort to Assist and Care for the Homeless, or REACH, and looking forward to starting a full-time job this week, thanks to Aerotek, an employment agency.

Staying at the REACH shelter, he said, is "helping me get back on my feet."

Saturday's early-afternoon meal helped, too.

With no place to go on Christmas, LeRoy, 42, said he would be "probably just sitting around, depressed" if he hadn't come to the church.

Guy Milford Norlin, 62, of Hagerstown, said he wanted to visit relatives living in Nebraska and Oregon for Christmas. However, he canceled his plans because he expected to have to testify against someone who allegedly assaulted him.

Norlin said he heard that Bethel Assembly of God Church was providing a Christmas meal, "so, I investigated."

"You can't complain about the price," Norlin said with a smile as he also waited for a ride.

Inside, most dining tables were occupied two hours into the meal.

This year, the church moved the meal from a large room to a more spacious gymnasium, which gave children extra room to throw a football and stretch their legs.

Ed Kennedy, who helps organize the meal each year, said volunteers served 200 people in person and delivered 200 more meals on Saturday.

Besides turkey, ham, potatoes, vegetables, drinks and dessert, many diners helped themselves to free children's gifts, such as books and puzzles, or free clothing.

Bethel Assembly of God Church's meal has grown the last two years.

For many years, Nick Giannaris held a free Christmas Day meal for several hundred at the Four Points Sheraton on Dual Highway.

The last meal, though, was held in 2002.

The next year, Bethel Assembly of God Church received some of the spillover. Between sit-down meals and deliveries, close to 600 people were served, by one estimate.

The 2002 meal count at Bethel Assembly of God Church was about 280.

"People don't have Nick's to fall back on anymore," Kennedy said. "They've been finding out about us."

Help was plentiful Saturday. Kennedy said there were about 35 to 40 volunteers.

Higher Ground Coffee on Dual Highway donated coffee, and Clear Spring High School provided fruit.

Kennedy said there was so much fruit, it didn't matter that some people took plenty home with them. Norlin had about a dozen pieces in a plastic bag at his feet as he awaited his ride.

Church member Cindy Ryder of Greencastle, Pa., was part of the crew seating and waiting on people.

"I just love the idea of helping people, serving them," she said.

Young adults in Bethel Assembly of God Church's chapter of Master's Commission, a ministry training program, worked the serving line, poured coffee and emptied trash.

There's plenty of time in the day to be home with family and helping at the church, said another volunteer and church member, Jon Baker of Williamsport.

"After you open your Christmas presents ... what are you going to do?" he said.

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