WARREN - Sandra Plevyak said attending the Families Helping Families' annual dinner has become a tradition for her family. It started six years ago when she didn't have a stove to cook a holiday feast. Plevyak heard about the free Christmas Day dinner at Aulizio's Banquet Center from a friend.
Her son since moved to Virginia. This year was the first time in two years they were blessed to reunite at Aulizio's for the holiday dinner, she said.
Her son, Marcus, and Sandra said that her granddaughter, Alicia, used to be terrified of Santa Claus' appearance at the dinner, but she was now more comfortable sitting on his lap.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Alisa Manna
LeVar Allen, 8, of Warren, and his siblings all had a chance to sit on Santa Claus’ lap at the 24th annual free Christmas Day dinner provided by Families Helping Families and The Movement at Aulizio’s Banquet Center in Warren.
"Her favorite part now is seeing Santa Claus," Sandra said. "They missed last year's dinner, so she's excited to see him this year."
She said the annual dinner was a wonderful way to enjoy Christmas with her family.
"God bless them for this," Sandra said, referring to Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka, who, along with Terry Armstrong, founded and organized the dinner in 1989.
The Christmas Day meal originated for the less fortunate or those who were alone during the holidays for a variety of reasons. Polivka said what started with about 70 attendees has grown to about 400-plus in the past 24 years.
Fellow Commissioner Frank Fuda, who's attended the last nine years, said it's worth seeing the smiling faces of the children light up at the sight of Santa Claus, or meeting the many people who are simply looking for company.
Fuda said the gathering provided a nice evening for families in need or people with nowhere else to go.
"There are a lot of people who come every year,'' he said. ''I talked to a man who has plenty of money but comes because of the people. And it's phenomenal to see the volunteers of all ages."
This year's Families Helping Families dinner was the first to be coordinated with The Movement church. John Ramsey, pastor of the Warren campus of The Movement, said the church is very community-minded and was presented with this opportunity by Polivka to continue spreading hope.
"We wanted to join forces and do our part to help out," Ramsey said. "There's a lot of laughter and joy from the kids. It's amazing."
Along with Ramsey were about 45 other volunteers from the church who brought gift bags for the kids and worship CDs for the adults.
Polivka said other donors included Panera Bread, Valley Foods, Dunkin' Donuts and Taylor Rental, but the dinner's success was a result of the many volunteers who spent their Christmas Day serving food, passing out gifts, monitoring children and greeting the community with open arms and warm smiles.
He said the real superheroes were all the people who brought joy to others this holiday.
Brandie Wagner of Cortland said this is her first year volunteering at the dinner, and she brought her two kids, Miles and Chloe, to teach them a lesson on giving back.
Wagner said Chloe wanted a character balloon made by the Cortland Masonic Lodge 529, but she had to wait until all the other kids had one first.
"It's good for them," she said.
Though Wagner attends Prince of Peace Church, she said her friends from The Movement recommended the Families Helping Families meal for volunteer work.
And there are many who are thankful for the generosity of all donors and hosts, even the volunteers themselves who see the annual gathering as their personal holiday meal.
Pat Bator of Warren said she single with no children and see's this opportunity to volunteers as a holiday gift in itself.
"I enjoy doing this for other people," she said. "Once your parents are gone, that's it. You don't have to poor to come here."
Volunteer Rick Bowser said he's helped in the kitchen the past seven years and is always overwhelmed by the outcome. Bowser is a widower who lost his wife a few years ago, and said volunteering on Christmas Day is his way of healing and helping the others who hurt.
"I enjoy the environment and giving back, and this gets me out on Christmas and volunteering each year. It gives the unfortunate a place to get warm, get a meal and have fellowship," he said. "I give Danny a lot of credit for starting something like this. It's a blessing that they've benefited the people who aren't as fortunate all these years."