They left the comfort of their homes to spend Christmas with hundreds of strangers. More than 200 people served the less fortunate during The Salvation Army's annual Christmas Dinner in Tyler. The volunteers arrived at the army around 9 a.m., grabbed cups of coffee and filled in their empty name tags.
Two hours later, the nameless faces were becoming friends.
"We're all talking and enjoying each others company, just having a good time" observed Cliff Hilbert, a Tyler contractor. Hilbert used to volunteer in Dallas, but hasn't served since moving to East Texas nine years ago.
Volunteers were ushered to a bulletin board where job descriptions were posted--each person chose their own chore. Some forewent the hard labor and joined the choir. Others steered clear of the stage. "It's a good thing they didn't put me up their singing," joked Hilbert. "Everybody would run away."
Instead Hilbert kept a low profile behind the dessert table, and across the room, retired educator Dan Garrison was busy serving the main course.
"This is the first time we didn't have any children at our house," said Garrison. "We celebrated last weekend, so we were ready to help someone else."
One group, who appropriately named themselves the butter-cutters, took pride in their work. "First we cut apples for fruit salad," joked Wendi Barr. "Just now, we finished cutting butter pats."
But no matter what jobs the volunteers chose, or who they befriended, they all shared the same mission. "I think most of them are down here, because they want to do something worthwhile to help someone else," added Hilbert.
On the other end of the room, Garrison and Barr agreed.
"If you've got time to give, there's people who need somebody to talk to," said Barr. "You know you're doing something for somebody else who isn't as fortunate as your are."
Garrison said volunteering reminds him of a poem, in which the final line reads, "I sometimes think he'll turn aside from all the many splendid deeds...that fill our breast with pride. And he will ask us, when we stand before the pearly gate--'How did you serve your fellow man?"
The Salvation Army fed about 700 people this Christmas. They need volunteers every year.
Kerri Panchuk, Reporting