Woman serves holiday nourishment - Catholic Courier

Woman serves holiday nourishment

Regina Krolak, 74, recently organized a Christmas dinner for more than 100 people. Many would find such a task daunting, but for Regina, her son Chris and their team of volunteers, the dinner is a treasured tradition. Regina has, after all, been providing holiday nourishment to Newark residents for four decades.

Forty years ago Regina — who belongs to St. Michael’s Parish in Newark — began hosting at her home Thanksgiving dinners for people with developmental disabilities. At that time, a number of these people had been deinstitutionalized and had begun to live and work in the Newark area. Although these people were happy to be a part of the community, they often lived in single-room residences without kitchen facilities, she said.

Regina couldn’t stand the thought of these people spending the holiday alone, without a Thanksgiving dinner, so she invited them to her house. The dinner soon became a tradition.

“On one of the Thanksgiving nights, one of the individuals said, ‘Can we come here for Christmas?'” Regina recalled.

Regina at first balked at the idea because with eight children, Christmas Day was already hectic. She knew, however, that restaurants in Newark were closed Christmas Day.

“They didn’t even have a cup of coffee on Christmas Day,” she said.

Instead of inviting people to her home, Regina and several other families each cooked a meal and brought it to St. Michael’s on Christmas Day. They welcomed to the church anyone who was alone or didn’t have food, and that’s how the community Christmas dinner was started, Regina said.

Thirty-three years ago, the dinner was taken over by Together In Christ — a group formed by members of the various churches in Newark — but Regina continues to coordinate the event. She has stepped down several times in the past to let someone else take the reins, but people sometimes back out, either due to extenuating circumstances or because they finally realize how much works goes into the dinner, Chris said. Consequently, Regina was back at the helm of the committee planning this year’s dinner.

“I’m 74 years old, and I’m not as speedy as I used to be. It was a big challenge for me, but no one took it over. I felt so bad, so I just took it over,” Regina said.

These days, the dinner is not just for the developmentally disabled, but for anyone in the area who would otherwise be alone for Christmas.

“It’s for people who maybe they lost a loved one; maybe they’ve just moved into town and don’t know anyone; maybe their family has grown up and they’re alone. It’s for anyone who would like to share Christmas with someone,” Regina said.

Regina planned the dinner with a team of capable volunteers, most of whom promised to help out again next year, she said. The camaraderie with both fellow volunteers and with the people she served helped make the dinner a positive experience.

“I had a tremendous amount of cooperation from everyone. We had a lot of fun. We really enjoyed the whole day,” Regina said. “It was probably one of the merriest Christmases I’ve ever had.”

Volunteers of all ages descended on the church on Dec. 23 as teens set up the tables, tablecloths and centerpieces and adult males prepared the 110 pounds of turkey needed for the meal. Many of the teens got a kick out of the “Reserved for Jesus” signs Regina had placed at the head of each table in an effort to keep Christ in Christmas, she said. Earlier in the week, children in local elementary schools had decorated the brown bags which would hold meals delivered to shut-ins, Chris added.

Volunteers served more than 100 meals at the church on Christmas Day, and volunteers from the Newark Volunteer Fire Department delivered 37 meals to shut-ins, Regina said. Nonetheless, they still had enough extra food to send leftovers home with anyone who needed them. Each person also received a poinsettia and a gift, both of which were donated by local businesses and individuals.

“In many cases, this is the only gift that someone receives for Christmas,” Chris said.

The gifts and food are not the only nourishment volunteers provide through this Christmas dinner, he added.

“What’s most important, I think, is not just serving someone over the counter and wishing them a Merry Christmas. It’s more about the fellowship, and not just serving,” he said. “I think that counter is a physical barrier. Step around the barrier. Sit with the people. Go out there and chat with them. They’re a part of your community as well. That fellowship can also feed a lot of those people.”

Chris knows firsthand what a healing experience the dinner can be. About five years ago, Chris was sitting alone in his empty apartment, trying to deal with his first Christmas as a divorced father. He’d never been involved with his mother’s project before, but he decided to help out that year in part to get his mind off his situation.

Chris was immediately struck by both the friendliness of everyone he encountered and the need he’d never known existed in his community.

“This is the only place they have to go. In a small town like Newark, you don’t think there are going to be 175 people that don’t have a place to go for Christmas,” Chris said, referring to the 175 meals he helped serve in 2004. “That touched me, and I wanted to get more and more involved in it. It’s a feeling that I didn’t know existed until I did this. I guess that’s kind of the drug that brings you back.”

People from all facets of the community work together to make this dinner a success, and that’s really the essence of what Christmas is about, he added.

For her part, Regina continues to be involved with the Christmas dinner because she enjoys helping others. When one of her sons was born with a developmental disability, the people around her were incredibly supportive, she said. She can recall being overwhelmed by their generosity and asking her mother how she would ever pay them back. Her mother answered, “You never will, but you can help someone else,” Regina recalled.

“That was a good lesson for me, and I’ve never forgotten that. I just thank God for that, too, because it’s helped me through life. I’ve been so fortunate just to be involved with people, because they’ve taught me more than I could ever imagine,” Regina said.

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