SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds lined up long before the doors opened. For some, it'd be the best meal they get all year, and for others, it would be one of the most memorable.
"If it weren't for this, I probably would have the same thing I eat every night — nachos. I get them at the gas station on 13th," said 35-year-old Jessica Freeman, who, with help from the Road Home shelter, is about to sign a lease on her first apartment. She's been homeless and living on the streets of the city since 1992.
The annual Christmas dinner, served at the St. Vincent de Paul dining room, has become something Freeman and her friends look forward to.
Pamela Atkinson, dinner organizer and advocate for the homeless and low income individuals in the valley, said many of the dinner patrons tell her it makes them "feel special" to be served a hot, delicious meal.
"When people feel special, it helps with motivation and their self esteem," she said. With all the donated food, clothing, toys and hygiene supplies, Atkinson said "nobody will go away empty handed tonight."
She said there is enough food to serve 1,000 people each year, and they never turn anyone away.
The Christmas tradition, which has been put on for the last 13 years, brings nearly 1,000 off the streets for dinner. On the menu the last three years has been steak, potatoes and green beans, donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as rolls, butter, hot chocolate, coffee or milk and a slice of pie, that come from other generous sources.
Volunteers who sign up nearly a year in advance help to serve the droves of hungry visitors. Atkinson said 79 helped this year, and 28 were on a waiting list, ready to provide the service.
Charles Dahlquist, of Sandy, has been helping every year since the dinner was initiated. He brings sons and daughters, grandchildren and others to experience the "value of service," he said, adding that "once you learn to serve, you'll be doing it all your life."
"It's a wonderful way to spend Christmas night," he said.
One grandson, Taylor Wright, 18, spent the evening quickly plating pie for those who came to eat. He said he's been helping with the dinner for the last four years and was "skeptical at first," but enjoys the feeling he gets from it now.
"On Christmas, it is easy to get caught up in the gifts, but this reminds you that there are people who are less fortunate than you are and it reminds you that they deserve to be happy, too," Wright said.
Atkinson said the annual dinner, a partnership between Catholic Community Services, the Grand America hotel and the LDS church, is "very much a team effort."
"A lot of my homeless and low income friends tell me they appreciate this," she said. "A lot of them could never afford this kind of meal."