Spreading Heart and Cheer to All
by Melissa LaScaleia
Janice Ash Sialiano never could have imagined how Hurricane Hugo would impact the future course of her life.
In 1989, the epic storm blew through Myrtle Beach leaving a wake of devastation, and Janice volunteered with the American Red Cross to help feed and care for those most affected by it.
“I decided I wanted to do more though,” Janice says. “After several months, myself and another woman, also named Janice, realized that Christmas was coming, and many people, their lives still incredibly disrupted, would not be able to celebrate their traditions as they normally did. We knew that people would need meals at the holiday, and we wanted to do something special, to bring some added care and normalcy back to their lives.”
Janice was a member of the 1st Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach, and received the church’s support to use their kitchen and facility for the enterprise the two women envisioned. With a team of fifteen volunteers to help— they got busy prepping and cooking in the days leading up to the holiday.
“We asked for donations and help,” Janice says. “We had people picking up turkeys and dressing green beans. In the end we cooked a full meal with potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.”
All was ready; then Mother Nature handed them another surprise.
“We had seventeen inches of snowfall on Christmas Eve,” Janice says. “The roads were basically shut down.”
Nobody was expecting the snow. But with the help of the local police and fire department to deliver the meals, they fed several hundred people.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” Janice says. “We only knew that there would be a lot of people who would need food on Christmas coming out of that devastation. With the Red Cross, we were feeding 600-800 people a day, so we knew we were capable of feeding a lot of people for the holiday.”
Janice and her team served about 50 sit-down dinners that first year. The event was such a success, garnered so much support and touched the hearts of so many— volunteers and recipients alike— that it took off, and became a holiday tradition at the church for the next ten years.
“People will always need to be fed,” Janice says. “What we offer is a free meal to everyone who wants one, not just the homeless. Many people are alone at the holidays. This a place for them to come and feel welcome.”
Over time, the Annual Community Christmas Dinner, as it came to be known, evolved into a nonprofit 501(c)(3), and expanded their locations around Horry and into Georgetown county, then into Andrews and Plantersville.
Today, the nonprofit that Janice spearheaded feeds about 10,000 people annually, across all the counties that they serve. She’s hoping that this year, their reach will extend to 12,000. Each location has their own team, but Janice remains involved in all aspects of the program.
“The Andrews-Williamsburg team is phenomenal,” she says. “They host a Christmas Eve dinner feeding 5,000 people alone. We’re expanding so much in that area.”
“This is a big undertaking,” she continues. “To find a group of volunteers that is dedicated can be really tough. But we have a remarkably devoted team and their energy is incredible. It is not one person who carries the load. Everybody works together, and works together well. Every person has a job, and everyone helps each other. And they come back, year after year.
“Many volunteers come because they’ve lost a spouse and they’re alone at the holidays. There are others who don’t want to take anything for free, so they’ll volunteer.”
The committee starts meeting in July. By October they’re planning seriously; by November they’re firming up everything; ten days before Christmas, they’re prepping food.
Each year, 500 volunteers work together to prepare 6800 pounds of roast turkey; 3300 pounds of ham; 900 pounds of bread; 225 pounds of chopped onion; 1920 pounds of mashed potatoes; 874 pounds of cranberry sauce; and 8,000 servings of dessert.
The event consists of a sit-down dinner in a festively-decorated hall with options to pick-up or have your meal delivered.
They also distribute 400 pairs of brand new shoes donated by the Claude Pardue Children’s Fund and the nonprofit Samaritan’s Feet, and give out clothes that people donate too.
“It’s not only the people we’re feeding,” Janice says. “It’s the people who come to volunteer who are also being fed— who are in need of that feeling of community. All the people we serve are our guests, and we want to make sure that they enjoy the day and the festivities. People are so appreciative of what we do and how we do it; and the food is incredible.”
“I’m very blessed,” she adds. “I have a wonderful family and there are so many people out there who don’t have anything. The feeling you get from giving back in this way is indescribable. I can’t imagine doing anything else at Christmas.”
Janice and her team strive to make the sit-down dinner part special with tablecloths, decorations, and music. But Covid-19 has made pick-up or delivery the only options for all locations this year; and the clothing and shoe distribution has been put on hold as well.
“Not having a sit-down dinner is making a huge difference for us,” she says. “There are so many things that have been impacted from this pandemic.”
Some of those include the rising costs of pre-packaged cutlery and to-go food containers— costs which Janice has had to include in her fundraising campaign.
The dinner costs $35k annually to run. Janice applies for different grants each year, including the Brunnelle Foundation in Georgetown county, as well as from the Chapin Foundation in Myrtle Beach to help fund the undertaking. The remainder of the finances they need comes from individual and corporate donations.
When she’s not running the Annual Christmas Dinner, Janice works as a realtor. This year, she was nominated for the National Association of Realtors Good Neighbor Award.
“As a result, Wells Fargo donated $4k to the charity of my choice, and of course I selected my own,” she says.
The Annual Christmas dinner still needs $12k for this year, on top of what they’ve already raised. It’s not too late to donate money or time for the event.
“None of this would happen without our team of volunteers,” Janice says. “We have teachers, we have media, restaurant workers, retired engineers— professional people who are extremely busy who give their time to this every single year. Crabby Mikes comes annually to cook for us at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church. We get a lot of food donations from food service companies like US foods, too.
“The event is for everyone who needs a meal simply put. Elderly who are on their own and maybe don’t have family. Anyone experiencing a loss, in need of company, in need of nourishment that someone else can provide. It’s a community gathering. And this year, that community support will be distributed and felt from afar.”
And what plans does she have for the nonprofit for the future?
“I hope we continue to expand like we are,” Janice says. “So many people don’t know we offer this dinner. So many people don’t realize that there’s a need for food and clothes all over our county. We just want to get the word out that we are here, and want to inspire others to be kind to one another throughout the year.
The 32nd Annual Community Christmas Dinner
Due to Covid-19, Christmas Dinner 2020 at all locations will be pick up and delivery only to ensure the safety of all. Call 843-781-1326 by December 22 to have your meal delivered.
Tax-deductible donations are greatly needed and appreciated and can be mailed to: Community Christmas Dinner, 1441 Southwood Drive, Surfside Beach SC 29575. Facebook @ Gathering of Community.