SALT LAKE CITY — While NBA players were back at work Sunday after a prolonged labor dispute, hundreds of low-income and homeless Utahns lined up for a free Christmas dinner.
The gulf between the two groups was not lost on Marie Lachance. Unsolicited, the unemployed 46-year-old mother of three grown children and a 2-year-old, opined about millionaire basketball stars squabbling over money.
"That's not right at all. That's sickening. That's greed," she said, toting a garbage bag with clothes.
Lachance joined other struggling residents Sunday for a steak dinner with all the trimmings at the St. Vincent de Paul Center. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provided 850 steaks which were grilled at the Grand America hotel. Catholic Community Services cooked the rest of the food served by 71 volunteers, including presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. and his family.
Volunteers also conducted neighborhood drives to collect coats, gloves, sock and toys to hand out to people in need.
The center has served Christmas dinner the past 12 or 13 years, said longtime community advocate Pamela Atkinson.
"People said they needed a decent evening meal on Christmas Day. We've had lasagna. We've had spaghetti. We've had ham and roast beef. Last year some of my homeless and low-income friends asked if they could have a steak dinner. And I thought why not," she said.
"Many told me tonight is the best meal they've had all year."
Several of those who served the dinners and bused tables have been coming to St. Vincent de Paul for years on Christmas, including Huntsman.
"It's the most important thing we could do on Christmas Day. This is about serving humanity. This is about coming together regardless of background or point of origin," the former Utah governor said. "Everyone deserves something special on Christmas Day."
Serving homeless people was an eye opener for 16-year-old Sarah Matheson.
"They're not as scary as they seem," she said. "I used to be kind of scared to come down here."
The Sandy teens' family has spent the past five Christmases at the center.
"We actually don't do a lot on Christmas other than spend time together as a family, so this is just a fun thing to do. It brings us closer together," Matheson said. "We always have some good experiences here."
Julie Edwards' family has served at the center for 20 years, though she wasn't always able to make it because she had four young children at home. This year, though, the Sandy woman was able to bring three of them along.
"We're so grateful to be here. It's just such a great thing," Edwards said choking up. "It's so humbling."
There's more to Christmas than Santa, she said. "It's all about giving and helping."
And Lachance is grateful for the help.
She lived at the Road Home shelter two years ago after losing her telemarketing job and not being able to afford rent. She also suffered hip problems about the same time.
"It was impossible to catch yourself up," Lachance said.2 comments on this story
People, she said, are trying to live on minimum wage or part-time work but it's tough in the current economy. "I don't know how you could do it. I really don't," she said.
Lachance now lives with her young son at Palmer Court, a renovated hotel the Road Home maintains for chronically homeless people. She receives job skills training there through the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Since having rip replacement surgery in the summer, Lachance said she' ready to go. "I have had a good work history," she said, adding she'd like a job as a receptionist or answering phones.
"I want a job," she said. "I really do."