When the call for dinner comes, there’s no messing around.
The line for Christmas dinner had already wrapped around the edge of the St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s community room when the call went out. Volunteers went quickly to work, piling roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables onto plate after plate for their hungry visitors.
But this is business as usual for the church’s Thursday night Community Café. For several years, the church has offered a meal to the congregation and the residents of State College, cafe manager Ron Rovansek said.
But because this was the first time the cafe’s weekly meal fell on Christmas Day, they decided to do a little extra.
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As visitors ate, they were entertained with holiday entertainment, such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” while church maintenance worker Scott Luzier dressed as Santa Claus and entertained the younger visitors.
Christmas is a little more hectic than usual, Rovansek said. The room could hold about 90 people, meaning volunteers would be serving about 125 meals. A typical Thursday will see about 100 meals served, he said.
Most Thursdays will also involve more turnover, with visitors getting their food, eating and heading out, he said. But on Christmas, people wanted to stick around and enjoy their time.
“Part of what we try to have is a nice community atmosphere,” Rovansek said. “We don’t want anyone to feel awkward. If you do need to bring your family in for a free meal, it’s a lot easier to join in a big group of boisterous people.”
The Community Café runs from 5 to 6:45 p.m. every Thursday, he said. Volunteers will pick up food in the morning, with a crew coming in later to cook and an evening crew arriving to serve and clean up.
Most of the food is donated, he said, by several area supermarkets including Weis Markets, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s. Food even comes in from HoneyBaked Ham and Irving’s, he said.
Cash donations help when it comes to smaller items, and the church has helped with larger kitchen expenses, he said. Recently, the kitchen was outfitted with new ovens, which greatly helped prepare for Christmas evening, he said.
Luzier said his whole family volunteers to help every Thursday, even his elderly father-in-law, who sets out the salt and pepper shakers.
“It helps keep people alive,” he said. “Everyone helps out in their own way.”
He stepped aside to pose with a family, offering the children their choice of presents from a large box.
The toys were donated by several different groups. Some were donated by the church congregation, said Rovansek’s wife, Sharon. A Penn State women’s business group donated $50 in toys, as well as her own sons.
The Rovansek’s three teenage sons were involved with the cafe early on, she said, helping to set up and eventually cook. She said it was important for them to be involved early on.
“I want my boys to learn community service,” she said. “And I want them to learn all aspects of it.”
Even some from out of town gave of their holiday to help.
Julia Bagby said she grew up in State College but now lives in the Philadelphia area. As a former member of the church, she wanted to help out while she was home for the holidays.
“I used to volunteer here when I was in college and I always enjoyed it,” she said. “So, I wanted to give back and be able to make other people’s holiday nice.”
One visitor, who wished to remain unnamed, said he’s been coming to the cafe for several years and regularly meets with friends to enjoy a meal
“(The volunteers) go out of their way to help everyone,” he said.