News Local/State

Champaign’s Community Christmas Dinner Turns Ten

First Christian Church in Champaign.

First Christian Church in southwest Champaign will be the site of the tenth annual Community Christmas Dinner. Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media

This is the tenth year for Champaign’s annual Community Christmas Dinner. And its organizers are looking for both volunteers and dinner guests for the Christmas Day event at the First Christian Church.

Lynne Barnes says she got the idea for serving a free dinner on Christmas Day from a similar dinner held by a couple in the small Vermilion County town of Ridge Farm. Champaign’s Christmas Day dinner now regularly serves about 400 people. While reservations are requested, Barnes says everyone is invited.

“Certainly people who might need a meal,” Barnes says. “But also, people who just otherwise would be alone, and have an opportunity to get together with other community members and celebrate Christmas.”

It takes about 200 volunteers to serve dinner every Christmas at 1 p.m. at the First Christian Church, 3601 South Staley Road near the intersection with Curtis Road in southwest Champaign.

Barnes says that after ten years, they’ve gotten the preparation and serving of the free dinner down to a “fine art," with all the work for the dinner done between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

“There's all kinds of roles,” says Barnes. "From food prep to exciting dishwashing, to plating, to serving, to being the table host, helping with gift wrapping, helping with our appetizers, and of course, good old set up and tear down.”

And Barnes says it’s been surprisingly easy to recruit volunteers.

“Because we thought, oh gosh, this might be hard, you know, to get volunteers on Christmas Day,” she says. “But often, we’re in a position where we have to turn people away.”

Barnes says that usually about two-thirds of the volunteers have helped out before.

"It's really fun to see the people who have consistently served over the years and really made it kind of a family event in some cases, or just folks who who want to do something different on Christmas Day and give back to the community," Barnes says.

The community Christmas dinner is designed as a restaurant experience, Barnes says.

“We open the venue doors and the tables are all set, decorated, the lights are dim, we have music playing, we have table hosts at each table,” said Barnes. “And as our visitors walk in, they are greeted by table hosts and are seated at tables. And then we have servers, two per table, dressed in black, with white shirts and red and green aprons. And then everyone is treated like they’re in a restaurant. Because we want our guests just to feel really well served.”

Barnes says the diners will be served a traditional holiday meal, with hams donated by the Carle Foundation, and rolls from the local Texas Roadhouse restaurant, apple and pumpkin pies from Meijer, and additional donated groceries.

“It’s a full kind of traditional meal,” Barnes said. “And it’s been what we’ve served from maybe year three. Because we started doing turkeys, but wow, that was a lot of work. So we converted to ham, and that’s worked out more smoothly.”

You can make reservations for the dinner by calling or texting 217-493-2323, and at the First Christian Church website. Those interested in volunteering for the dinner can use this web page, which can also be accessed through the church website. The deadline for both reservations and volunteering is Sunday, Dec. 22.