Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
At this year's To Stratford with Love banquet, organizer Richard Kneider challenged everyone in attendance, collectively or individually, to "purposely choose to serve others."
It's a message that's rooted in the beginnings of the popular dinner, which celebrated its 25th anniversary Saturday at the Rotary Complex.
Richard recalled Pastor Charles Swartwood asking his congregation at Bethel Pentecostal Church, "Why are we here?" and said it was in that moment the seeds for what has become a Christmas-time tradition in Stratford were planted.
"The bottom line is, as Christians, we are here to serve our community," Richard said during a break from setting up for the meal. "That stuck with my wife Ruth and myself, people in our congregation, and the people in Stratford, because this thing has grown so much since the first year."
Richard estimates they probably served around 300 people the first few years of the dinner, and were helped by close to 100 volunteers.
On Saturday, by comparison, tables and chairs were set up to accommodate 640 people, and Richard noted they were expected even more, despite the snowing weather outside making travel less than ideal.
Helping set up the tables, prepare the food, serve the meals, and clean up afterwards was a team of 150-plus volunteers. Among them were high school students from Brazil, Mexico, Germany, and Spain who were here on an exchange. Richard said they could have had more volunteers but had to turn people away because there simply wasn't enough jobs that needed filling.
For neighbours Carol Quail and Diane Cox, it was their second year helping at To Stratford With Love. The two enjoy volunteering at the hospital and said they thought the dinner would be a nice way to give back during the holidays. They said they were "amazed" by how well organized the dinner was.
"Richard and Ruth do such a good job here," Cox said.
Joining them was Liz Forrest, who was also participating for the second time, helping cut slices of pie and wait on the tables. She said she had such a good time last year she wasted no time earlier this fall signing up to volunteer again.
"It's such a wonderful event," she added.
Bringing greetings from the city, Mayor Dan Mathieson said the holiday season is a time to show appreciation for those who make a difference in people's lives, as well as a time to show compassion for those who are less fortunate, both of which are accomplished at To Stratford with Love.
"To Stratford with Love embodies what a great community we are," he said.
Looking out at the throng of people bustling around to make sure the dinner went off without a hitch, Ruth said it's the many people who turn up year after year wanting to be involved in some capacity that impresses her more than anything.
"Even tonight I'm seeing faces here I've never seen here before," she said.
Equally impressive were the hundreds of pounds of food; roast beef, vegetables, baked potatoes, and desserts – all donated by the local community.
"I can't even tell you how many pies we have," Richard laughed. "They just keep coming."
Richard was eager to share the story of one particular woman, a single mother who had attended the dinner in the past and approached organizers last year about contributing in some fashion. Richard said at that point last year the event was full, but she contacted him this year and offered to bake 800 cookies.
"That, I think, exemplifies what this whole dinner is about," said Richard, who noted for some, Christmas can be a difficult time, whether they are alone or struggling to make ends meet.
"We're always trying to make sure people don't misconstrue that this is an event strictly for people who can't afford a Christmas meal," he explained. "Certainly we want those people to be here, but we just want everyone in the community, regardless of where they are socially, to be able to share the Christmas season and the fellowship with one another."