ONAWA, Iowa | Tara Wright shopped at Fiesta Foods in Onawa more than a decade ago when she happened upon Tim Coyle, the store manager who stocked shelves at the time.
"What are you doing for Christmas?" Wright asked Coyle.
"I'm working at the Onawa Christmas Dinner," he replied.
"What Onawa Christmas Dinner?" she responded.
As it turns out, it's the Onawa Christmas Dinner now co-hosted and organized by Wright, who worked with co-host Amanda Yanak and a crew of 30-40 volunteers in serving 200 at the Onawa Community Center on Monday.
Shirley Matkosky is credited with starting the Onawa Christmas Dinner 11 years ago. The Onawa resident, Wright said, simply wanted a meal and time for fellowship for those who didn't have loved ones in and around the Monona County seat. The first event attracted 20 or so diners. Then Coyle dove in, offering his contacts and energy in directing the effort for several years until his retirement from Fiesta Foods a couple of years ago. At that time, he handed his spatula and Rolodex to Wright, who owns a catering business called J.U.G.G.S. BBQ.
"I didn't have much of a choice in taking this over," Wright said. "Tim handed the dinner over to Amanda and myself two years ago. He told me, 'You love to cook. You love to give back. You are the angel who gets to take this over.'"
Wright and Yanak agreed to do it. They served 275 guests one year ago. On Monday, due to the extreme cold weather, most likely, their numbers dropped to 225. Still, they were overjoyed with the effort and turnout.
They should be. After all, they prepped and served 230 pounds of ham and roast beef, in addition to more than 100 pounds of mashed potatoes and all sorts of Italian pasta salad, homemade stuffing, gravy, green beans, orange fluff, a variety of desserts and more.
"There's never any scrimping," said Wright, who began food prep with a shopping excursion six days prior to Christmas. "Some of the people we see don't get a good home-cooked meal each day. Every year, I want them to have a home-cooked meal that's hot. Some of our guests take home containers so they can have another meal at a later time."
Yanak was enrolled in culinary school six years ago when her coursework called for her to complete a requirement for service hours in food preparation. She made her way to the Onawa Community Center and pitched in at the Onawa Christmas Dinner. The event hooked her quickly.
"After six years, the people at the Onawa Christmas Dinner have become part of my family," said Yanak, a staff member at Magic Depot Child Care Center in Onawa. "The joy of being able to see the smiling faces of those who don't have someone to celebrate with at Christmas makes me cry."
Last year, Yanak and Wright joined forces to solicit donations for toys among those in the business community. Various organizations, such as the state chapter of Desconocido motorcyle club, the NEW Co-op grain elevator at nearby Blencoe, Iowa, Subway, Iowa-Nebraska State Bank of Onawa, O'Reilly's Auto Parts, Fiesta Foods and the Hoffman Agency stepped up with gift card donations and Christmas hams.
Volunteers made gift baskets for several families. Each guest present received a Christmas gift, too. Youth servers staffed the luncheon and others helped make Christmas deliveries to shut-ins, staff members at the Monona County Jail, both for those working at the site and those spending the holiday in jail.
"One of our guests lost his mother several years ago," said Wright. "This man doesn't get any gifts for Christmas. Last year, Amanda and I made sure he received a gift and he gave us the biggest hugs with tears in his eyes. The man now brings a card for me and my husband and gives us another big hug."
Yanak and Wright called Matkosky to stand before the group on Monday while thanking her for her foresight in starting an event that has grown into a $1,300 effort, one that touches hundreds each Christmas, those on both ends of the giving-and-receiving spectrum.
"Shirley wrote us a check on Monday and said it wasn't much, just a little money to help us out," Wright said. "I said, 'Honey, you being here is a worth a million dollars to us."
Both Wright and Yanak put their own family celebrations on hold until the Onawa Christmas Dinner was wrapped up for yet another year. Their children and grandchildren finally got to open gifts around 9 p.m., 15 hours after a marathon day of service began.
According to Wright, she'd have it no other way. "At some point, all five of our kids have helped with the dinner. Our son, Gregory (Wright), who is 15 and autistic, helped serve this year. This was the first year we've had all kinds of kids there helping set up, tear down and serve food. The best feeling was seeing kids lined up and wishing people Merry Christmas."
She hesitated, then added, "I felt like I was in a dream."