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A tradition continues at Edwards Church

  • John Chouinaid, left, and Stephen Boucher, both of Springfield, raise glasses of apple cider to toast the holiday meal during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    John Chouinaid, left, and Stephen Boucher, both of Springfield, raise glasses of apple cider to toast the holiday meal during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Manna Soup Kitchen head chef Robert Saalfrank asked for a moment of silence before leading a blessing at the annual Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday "for the 26 people who cannot be here" because of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Manna Soup Kitchen head chef Robert Saalfrank asked for a moment of silence before leading a blessing at the annual Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday "for the 26 people who cannot be here" because of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteer Minda Goss, right, of Northampton helps Alicia Noble of Holyoke with a dessert selection during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Volunteer Minda Goss, right, of Northampton helps Alicia Noble of Holyoke with a dessert selection during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Volunteers, from left, Brenda Carr of Whately, Casey Adams and Arlene Nolan, both of Northampton, and Don Braman of Whately pack "take-out" meals during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Volunteers, from left, Brenda Carr of Whately, Casey Adams and Arlene Nolan, both of Northampton, and Don Braman of Whately pack "take-out" meals during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Eric Harkins, right, of Northampton helps himself to a cup of eggnog after getting a plate of "all the fixin's" served by volunteers, from left, Piper Murphy, Ellyn Schmidt, Richard Moody, Hedy Rose and Chris Schmidt, all of Northampton, during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Eric Harkins, right, of Northampton helps himself to a cup of eggnog after getting a plate of "all the fixin's" served by volunteers, from left, Piper Murphy, Ellyn Schmidt, Richard Moody, Hedy Rose and Chris Schmidt, all of Northampton, during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Chouinaid, left, and Stephen Boucher, both of Springfield, raise glasses of apple cider to toast the holiday meal during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Manna Soup Kitchen head chef Robert Saalfrank asked for a moment of silence before leading a blessing at the annual Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday "for the 26 people who cannot be here" because of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, December 14.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Volunteer Minda Goss, right, of Northampton helps Alicia Noble of Holyoke with a dessert selection during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Volunteers, from left, Brenda Carr of Whately, Casey Adams and Arlene Nolan, both of Northampton, and Don Braman of Whately pack "take-out" meals during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Eric Harkins, right, of Northampton helps himself to a cup of eggnog after getting a plate of "all the fixin's" served by volunteers, from left, Piper Murphy, Ellyn Schmidt, Richard Moody, Hedy Rose and Chris Schmidt, all of Northampton, during the Manna Soup Kitchen Christmas Dinner at Edwards Church on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

For six years, the nonprofit soup kitchen has prepared a full holiday meal with all the trimmings for those down on their luck or without nearby family to share the day with.

Helen Hill of Northampton has enjoyed the holiday meal provided by Manna for three years.

Hill said she started coming after her husband of over 20 years passed away about three years ago.

She chose to have a meal delivered the first time, but has made a point to come out since then and enjoy the company of others either down on their luck or separated from family and loved ones.

The best part, she said, is the friendship offered by all who attend and the opportunity to be around other people during the holidays.

She said she’s worked in a nursing home and saw first-hand the effects on people feeling isolated and alone during the holidays and is grateful there’s an alternative for those who need one.

Hill said if there’s any awkwardness among the diners about filling their plates or going back for seconds, it soon fades in the warmth of the dining room and the volunteers running it.

“They don’t make you feel guilty —there’s no judgment of any kind,” Hill said. “It really gives you the Christmas spirit.”

About 75 people joined together to dine Tuesday afternoon.

Bob Saalfrank, Manna coordinator and head chef, took one last look around the room after the last of the preparations were made and, with the air of a Broadway director, whipped his fingers around in the air, signaling the volunteers to take the foil off the food and start letting the diners in.

Saalfrank greeted the diners coming in with warm handshakes and hugs, graciously accepting the thanks from the guests.

He opened the meal with a brief moment of silence in acknowledgment of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims.

“There are 26 people that can’t be with us this year,” he said.

Saalfrank said the part that makes it worthwhile for him each year, despite the hard work, is the friendship and fellowship of each other and being able to provide someplace for the homeless and needy to go.

Saalfrank said he’d been on the receiving end of Manna’s generosity and wanted to be able to give back to those going through hard times now.

Saalfrank said he hopes the day comes when the meals are prepared, the volunteers are in place, the doors are opened, and no one needs to come.

Until then, “We’ll still be here no matter what,” he said. “The Lord shall provide.”

The spirit of giving extended beyond the borders of the church building and inspired some of those who were in the area and had other plans before lending a hand.

Winston Facey, of Springfield, was planning on preaching the Gospel to passers-by on the quiet streets Christmas morning, but when he heard about the meal being served at Edwards, decided his efforts would be better used serving those in need Tuesday.

Facey said he hopes that if people take away a lesson about the holiday season, it’s to focus less on material goods and celebrity worship and refocus on people who are in need of assistance.

Jess Fredrick worked at community holiday meals for 22 years and was running Manna’s massive 15-foot-long dessert table on Tuesday, much of which was donated by Big Y and Stop & Shop supermarkets, with the rest baked by volunteers, she said.

The most rewarding part for her, she said, is getting to see people she’s made connections with through her work in the mental health field enjoying a holiday meal in the company of friendly people.

“It’s not just a lot of people who know each other,” she said. “It’s family. It’s inventing family.”

The challenge for her, she said is knowing the meal allows people a brief respite from tough circumstances, and knowing in a short time, they’re going to walk out the door and go right back to where they were before the meal.

But, for that two hours, Fredrick said, they get to hang out in a friendly, safe place, get a good meal, and get interaction with people.

“It’s good for them,” she said. “It’s good for the volunteers.”

In addition to the holiday meals, the Manna soup kitchen serves meals three times a week in Northampton: Monday at noon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Wednesdays at 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m., both at Edwards Church.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com

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