BANGOR, Maine — On one side of the room at the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department building, tables groaned with more than 24 boxes of stuffed animals, plastic toys, crayons and coloring books.
On the other side of the room, more tables were filled with aluminum baking pans of steaming potatoes, beans and turkey.
As Friday morning turned into early afternoon, it didn’t take long for the tables to empty of food and presents as Manna Ministries held its 17th Christmas dinner.
Manna Ministries Executive Director Bill Rae estimated that 300 people would eat a free meal Friday morning, consuming 120 pounds of roast turkey, about 100 pounds of mashed potatoes and another 75 pounds of sweet potatoes, along with rolls, cranberry sauce, green beans and donated cookies.
The attendance numbers were up slightly from last year, which Rae attributed to the economy.
“People last year who were offering money, giving food, are here [this] year on unemployment checks trying to make it,” he said. “They’ve come here to eat. These are all people who are on a fixed income, trying to make it on unemployment checks that nowhere meet the needs that they have. People have come here to eat.”
Linda McAllister, of Hampden, works at some of Manna’s food banks, but on Friday came to eat and pick up some presents with her husband, Buddy McAllister. The McAllisters have been coming to Manna’s Christmas dinner for several years, she said.
“Bill’s a really nice person, and he does good for everybody,” Linda McAllister said
Many of the presents were donated, but Rae said Manna spent an additional $6,000 to buy enough presents to ensure that everyone had something.
About 70 volunteers dished out food, handed out presents, and circled the room with coffeepots, milk cartons and water pitchers.
Another dozen or so local teachers handed out more than 100 children’s books through a donation program at the Borders store near the Bangor Mall. The teachers gave out books according to age and reading level.
Rae led the diners and volunteers in the Christmas carols “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells,” and another popular song.
“This is Jesus’ birthday today, and we’re getting together to celebrate his birthday, by singing ‘Happy Birthday,’” Rae said, speaking into a microphone, before the room burst into song.
Chefs John Donnelly and Jim McCormick arrived at the Parks and Recreation building around 8 a.m. Christmas Day to prepare the huge meal. As people continued to line up for first helpings, Donnelly said he would have his own family meal later in the day.
“Whatever he’s doing later with the family, I’m going to do. He’s my stepfather,” Donnelly said, nodding in Rae’s direction. “I’ll probably do the cooking there, too.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTOS BY JOHN CLARKE RUSS
Bill Rae (center, with hand on chest), executive director of Manna Inc., asks volunteers to raise their hands if they want to join Manna’s impromptu holiday choir before Manna’s Christmas dinner at the Bangor Parks and Recreation Center on Friday.
Volunteer Christopher Strout, 10, of Dixmont, strains to hold up a gift bin as he circulates around the room handing out presents during Manna’s Christmas dinner at the Bangor Parks and Recreation Center on Friday.