Sunday story: Christmas for the community

For nearly a decade, Lee Ann and John Sawyer have celebrated Christmas surrounded by friends and family – and nearly 2,000 of their neighbors.

Lee Ann is the Executive Director of Bypass RVA, a non-profit organization that John founded in 2012. The organization plans two major volunteer opportunities each year: 150 Beds for 150 Children, which provides donated beds to local children who would otherwise sleep on the floor and on sofas , and the Christmas dinner, which offers a free festive meal to neighbors in need.

This is the eighth year that Bridging RVA has offered a Christmas dinner to residents of Richmond and surrounding counties. Sawyer says the location varied in the early years, but “we found our perfect spot at Congregation Beth Ahabah», A reformed Jewish synagogue in Fan which accommodates around 1,700 guests.

While some of the guests are homeless or food insecure, many attendees are also senior couples and people who might otherwise be alone at Christmas.

“They come and sit down and find a community around a table,” says Sawyer.

In a typical year, work begins with two days of preparation at Bon Air Presbyterian Church and Second Baptist Church, which lend their commercial kitchens. Volunteers cook turkeys, prepare mashed potatoes and pies. Then, on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, another team arrives at Beth Ahabah to decorate the space and set the tables. That evening, the dinner volunteers work 90-minute shifts. Customers can call an 800 number to request a bus to pick them up and take them home. And Santa Claus joins the festivities with gifts for the children present.

The event naturally changed during the pandemic when a sit-down dinner for thousands was not possible. In addition, says Sawyer, the needs have increased dramatically and more and more people have been faced with the prospect of spending Christmas at home alone. In response, Bridging RVA offered a meal delivery program in 2020 and expanded its reach to over 2,400 people.

“It was like DoorDash,” she says. “We prepared each meal in individual take-out containers and bagged them. “

Instead of diners coming to Beth Ahabah, volunteers lined up outside the synagogue to collect delivery tickets and meals for six households. Bridging RVA asked for the names of social services, school counselors, communities in schools and mental health facilities.

While current regulations may allow in-person gatherings, Sawyer says Bridging RVA will continue to offer meal delivery this year.

In total, more than 200 households are signing up to help – and places are selling fast. Sawyer posted the volunteer registration on Thanksgiving night and half of the positions were filled within three hours. Three days later, they were almost at full capacity.

Some volunteers are young families who may have left their hometown and extended family and wish to instill values ​​of gratitude in their children. This is what prompted the Sawyers to organize the event.

“We’ve always had a lifestyle of giving back,” she says, “but we wanted our family and friends to see that you can step behind, not just your checkbook. “

Other volunteers come looking for a link. Sawyer says an elderly couple have volunteered every year since the program began because their children live abroad.

“They greet people when they walk in the door, they hand out badges, they love every baby that comes in,” says Sawyer. “They don’t want to be home alone so they spend all day with us.”

Susan Cheatham started volunteering for Bridging RVA about five years ago and she supports both the 150 Bed Campaign and the Christmas Dinner.

Cheatham says her family agreed to help with Christmas dinner after her kids grew up. They spend the morning volunteering and party at home in the afternoon. Although her husband passed away earlier this year and her children now live in Raleigh, North Carolina, Cheatham said they still plan to keep the tradition going.

“The excitement of Santa Claus and gifts is long gone,” she says. “Volunteering adds to our day and helps us understand what Christmas is. “

Although organizing a dinner party involving thousands of people is complex, with endless moving parts, the Sawyers strive for a seamless event for guests and volunteers. Lee Ann hopes this will help volunteers navigate their community and find ways to give back throughout the year.

“We want loyal volunteers and we want them to find their own passion where they can serve,” she says. “Once you see the needs, you can’t ignore them. If you have the ability to help relieve need or injury, we think we need to do something about it. “

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About Bradley J. Bridges

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