Originally created 12/26/96

Holiday spirit abounds



Ron Roberts helps serve hot Christmas dinners to more than 250 people Wednesday at the Golden Harvest Food Bank's Masters Table Central Soup Kitchen. This was the Fourth Annual Christmas Celebration Sit-Down Dinner for the kitchen.

Bobby Mackey with the District 16 Masonic Order gives John Rivers a pair of shoes and a bag full of toiletries early Christmas morning in front of the Salvation Army in Augusta. The district's Reach Out Committee went to two other locations Wednesday to give donations to the needy and homeless.

George Smith has lost almost everything in the last year - his job, his home, most of his furniture and clothes. But on Christmas Day, he still had his perspective.

``Christmas is all in the spirit,'' he said, hunched over a Styrofoam tray of turkey and dressing in the Salvation Army dining room. ``It's Jesus' birthday. People forget that's what it is, in all the hustle and bustle.''

His girlfriend, Sandy Rogers, nodded as she speared some stuffing with her fork.

``It's always, `What can you do for me?''' she said. ``It (should be) about loving other people.''

That spirit was alive across the Augusta area in the free turkey dinners, the volunteers, the toys and necessities that found their way to needy and sick hands.

In Aiken, the Salvation Army offered a special holiday lunch and dinner for eight people staying at the agency's shelter on Park Avenue. There were homemade candies, cookies, sandwiches, a ham and casseroles.

Besides the eight shelter residents, director Kay Miles said, ``We had a couple of people drop by. We don't turn anyone away.''

In Augusta, more than 25 volunteers went down to the Master's Table soup kitchen, seated their 221 guests, and then brought them trays of food and small bags of gifts.

``We serve them restaurant style,'' assistant manager Mary Saffron said. ``It's a way to say that they're special.''

Just looking at the people waiting for them at the tables gets to those who serve, too.

``I was actually quite stunned to see a lot of young couples bringing their kids in,'' said Ron Roberts, a morning show host for radio station WZNY who spent part of his Christmas serving at the Master's Table. ``It's hard for everybody but it's especially hard for kids who don't understand why they don't have presents, why they don't have a tree, why they don't get to celebrate Christmas.''

Despite his strong convictions about Christmas being a holy day, Mr. Smith, 36, looked down at his grimy maroon sweatshirt and in a low mumble said he didn't go to church.

``We're just getting our clothes together,'' he said, looking down at his tray. ``I didn't want to go like this.''

Despite his circumstances now, he can look up and smile and talk confidently of future jobs, maybe back in the appliance repair business.

``I've got a good feeling I'll find something,'' he said.

If there's one thing Tom Ryan has learned in the eight days of the Christmas season he's spent at the Salvation Army, it's that Mr. Smith's story is pretty common. In fact, it's his story, too.

Mr. Ryan, 40, is the ``lodge man'' who supervises some of the dormitories at Salvation Army in Augusta. He is back at the shelter after injuring his leg and losing his job again. He was working a double-shift Christmas Day, from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., so that he won't think too much about last Christmas.

A year ago he was at his father's house, getting ready for bed.

``I'd just taken my shoe off and I was getting ready to pull the other one off,'' he said. He heard his father in the next room get up and go into the bathroom, then come back out.

``He hollered out, `I'm feeling faint,' so I ran to him. By the time I got in there he had collapsed,'' Mr. Ryan said. ``He died in my arms.''

Wednesday was his second sober Christmas in a row, and he was feeling good.

He was wearing a red and white-trimmed Santa hat, and a little later in the afternoon he was going to celebrate Christmas with his new wife, whom he met through a singles dating service. Another job will come along, he said, and next Christmas he will be somewhere else. But his mind will drift back here.

``I can't just walk away and forget this place after 12 years'' off and on, Mr. Ryan said.

He knows for those who need it next Christmas there will be a hot meal here, a warm place to sleep, and something much more important, the thing he and Mr. Smith and many others got this Christmas.

``Another chance,'' he said.