A meal and a gift can mean so much on Christmas Day.
Listen to just one story from Labrian McCall, on the mend after a knee replacement that kept him out of work for two months. Finances have been tough. The pandemic still rages. He walks with an uncertain gait but he’s back on his feet.
On Saturday morning, McCall was among those who gathered at Northcott Neighborhood House.
He was there to pick up a family meal for four and two wrapped gifts for his children.
He made his way through the line and then stopped to talk about what it all meant. Suddenly, he was overcome with emotion, his voice cracking, tears streaming down his face.
“This right here is unbelievable,” he said.
Truly, it was.
On Christmas, Milwaukee can be at its best, when volunteers and organizations reach out to others less fortunate.
Thousands of people were served at two large events, the one at Northcott Neighborhood House in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood and the 32nd Salvation Army Christmas Family Feast at the Wisconsin Center.
They were both months in the making.
They’ve been doing Christmas dinners at Northcott for years but nothing as large as this. A lengthy list of sponsors helped make it all possible, including Bader Philanthropies, UniteWI, I-Care, WestCare Wisconsin, Molina Healthcare, Milwaukee Bucks Foundation, United Methodist churches and the United Methodist Women and Friends.
But in the end, it was the volunteers who helped make the day possible, from chef Lisa Kaye who oversaw the cooking of chicken and spaghetti to 12-year-old Anthony Holden, who helped carry gifts and bags of food to cars.
There were so many toys, dolls and toy trucks, sports equipment and science kits.
“There is far greater need,” said Tony Kearney, Northcott’s executive director, who bounded around a gym wearing red sneakers and a red track suit.
“It takes will,” said Bria Grant, executive director of UniteWI, a social services organization. “Pandemics don’t throw us off. They get us to double down in the work we do.”
Over at the Wisconsin Center, a line of cars wrapped around the facility for the Christmas Family Feast. For the second straight year, the event was confined to takeout and curbside service only in order to protect the public and volunteers from COVID-19.
But on a mild winter day, with temperatures reaching the 40s, there was a festive air with Christmas music playing, Santa Claus appearing and meals of turkey and ham being distributed to thousands.
“It means a lot to have this,” said Ebony Williams, who was picking up gifts and food for her large family.
For some, loaves of bread and packets of wool socks were just as important as toys and books.
Salvation Army Major Steven E. Woodard, divisional secretary and Milwaukee County coordinator, said the large crowd showed the necessity of providing comfort, especially during the pandemic.
“We’re all having to adjust during a pandemic,” he said. “But the need doesn’t stop.”
Woodard’s wish for next year? To be able to hold a traditional Christmas Family Feast indoors.
“It would be great to have,” he said.