A few weeks before Christmas, Tom Mathers was standing behind the bar at his bar and restaurant, when three young men came in for a drink.
They all lived together and had worked together until they had lost their jobs.
“I asked them what they were doing for Christmas,” Mathers said. “And I asked them if I had a free dinner at the bar, would they come? And they said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Friday afternoon, Mathers and several volunteers from the community served a free meal at The Boardroom to more than 130 Craig residents who had limited options for the holiday.
Years ago, the dinner was an annual event, sometimes feeding as many as 350 people. About four years ago, Mathers said interest in the dinner had waned.
“I think times were good, and there just weren’t as many people coming,” he said. “Now, there are a lot of people out of work, and a lot of them aren’t but are still on a tight budget. I felt like we just needed to do it this year.”
Once Mathers had gauged the interest from his three patrons, the effort snowballed more quickly than he could have imagined.
People began to call the bar, asking what they could do to help.
Some just wanted to give cash, and when Mathers said he had enough, people insisted he keep it and use it for next year’s dinner.
One of Mathers’ regular customers cooked a whole turkey in her home and brought it in along with three trays of dressing and gravy.
“In fact, we had too much,” he said. “Everybody came down on their Christmas day and said, ‘I’d rather do this than stay home with my family.’”
But to Mathers, Friday’s event was still a family dinner.
He said it felt just like sitting down to Christmas dinner, except that everyone was invited to cook, eat and help clean up. His wife, Stacey, stood up and offered a blessing to all of the community members as they dug into their meal.
“You don’t have to be broke or without a job to come down,” Mathers said. “It’s a community gathering, and some of the food was so good.”
One person even volunteered to drive a bus full of seniors from Sunset Meadows to the meal.
“They just thoroughly enjoyed it,” Mathers said. “I’m really, really appreciative to whoever stepped up to drive them.”
Mathers and the family, friends and business owners who helped make the dinner possible didn’t let any of the food go to waste.
They sent leftovers home with many people, including Rod Stecklein, who was out of work since The Memorial Hospital had been completed.
He told Mathers the dinner had been his first meal that week that wasn’t Ramen noodles.
Aside from learning how generous the community could be in supplying food and volunteering the time, he also learned the hard-working nature of so many people in this town.
The three men who originally sparked the idea in Mathers’ mind took a piece of his advice and went to apply for unemployment.
They retuned to the bar the following day where Mathers asked them if they had received government assistance.
“They said they changed their minds,” Mathers said. “They didn’t want handouts, they just wanted a job. It hit a soft spot with me. There are a lot of good people out of work.”
But Christmas Day was a silver lining to some of the difficult times many families faced in 2009.
“My favorite part was just the camaraderie I saw,” he said. “And seeing how happy everyone was.”
Nicole Inglis can be reached at 875-1793, or firstname.lastname@example.org.