The recipients of free dinners aren’t the only ones who have a little extra cheer at the Elks annual Christmas dinner.
The volunteers, who put together the giant-sized buffet for the community every year at Elks Lodge BPOE 350, have made it a part of their Christmas tradition.
Take, for instance, Elks member Carson Elswick.
This year marked the 40th consecutive Christmas he has been a part of serving the delicious dinners. He started “taking out garbage,” but has risen to be one of the mashed-potato masters with buddy Tom Phipps.
“Tom and I are the Potato Kings,” Elswick said. “Best mashed potatoes in town.”
Those who came to the lodge or had dinners delivered to their homes would heartily agree the meal was made with love. Volunteers made enough food to serve 1,400 meals, including an estimated 900 pounds of baked ham and 800 pounds of dressing, along with green beans, yams, mashed potatoes and gravy, dinner rolls and desserts.
Meals were served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the lodge, but more than 500 to-go boxes were delivered before 10 a.m.
The work starts days before the event, but several, including Mark Ison, started their Christmas morning doing some cooking at 5.
Ison has been working the Christmas and Thanksgiving meals the Elks provide for nearly three decades.
“All these guys in here give their time on Christmas Day to do this,” Ison said. “I haven’t spent Christmas at my mom’s house in 15 or 20 years. This brings the joy out of you. You’ll have a tear in your eye, but a smile on your face.”
Ison said the dinners are only a small part of what the Elks provide to the community every day. He said they recently hosted a Christmas party for children. Each child received three presents and a hamburger/hot dog meal.
“People have no idea how much the Elks do,” Ison said. “I’m proud to be a part of the organization.”
Elswick said he’s been leaving his family on Christmas morning for 40 years. When his children were little, he said they would get up early to unwrap presents and then he’d come to the Elks to begin the task of producing hundreds of meals.
Retired Ashland firefighter Joey Baer has manned the ovens for about 25 years, he said. “I think it’s the best service the Elks does,” he said. “A lot of people come here for the meal and some fellowship. We’ll give them food to take home if they want it.”
Baer was going to leave after his time cooking for the Elks to cook a big family meal for 20.
It’s not only Elks members who volunteer, either. Boy Scout troops were serving and setting up tables and others looking for community service hours put in some volunteer time. People from all walks of life come to volunteer, Ison said.
Kathleen Thompson, who works at the Ashland Post Office, has been volunteering for the past five years, she said.
“I love helping people and this is a good way to do it,” said Thompson, who came ready for the occasion wearing a Santa hat. “People are so appreciative of getting a warm meal and a smile. People need to feel special, especially at Christmas. I love helping.”
Elks served more than 1,600 meals at Thanksgiving and were anticipating drawing near that number again for Christmas.
“We may not have quite as many, but it’ll be close,” Ison said. “We’re happy to make anybody’s Christmas a little better.”
The organization has been providing Thanksgiving and Christmas meals for around 50 years, organizers said.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.