For some, Christmas means giving back to others
Ed Snoddy shouted a greeting to a homeless man he recognized and got a jolly "ho, ho, ho!" in response. Soon after, he steered the Volunteers of America homeless outreach van through a blur of snow into a Sugar House shopping center where he'd spotted a couple appealing to passers-by for help.
He jumped out of the van and into the blizzard to find out what he could do for them, leaving a bundled Pamela Atkinson in the back seat working a smartphone in search of aid for a needy family she'd just learned about from a state Capitol contact. The two advocates had already delivered hot roast-beef dinners to their homeless friends at a settlement of tents and huts along a Salt Lake Valley creek. They still had a few stops to go.
It was Christmas Eve, and while holiday shoppers swarmed the stores in search of last-minute gifts, Snoddy and Atkinson had their own mission: helping needy and homeless Utahns.
This is their Christmas tradition. And, rather than skip it this year because of family obligations, they just adjusted their timing.
"I'm doing what I'm meant to do," said Atkinson, a well-to-do health-care industry retiree who counts as many friends on Utah's streets as she does in its halls of power. "I can't do everything for everyone, but I think I can do some things for some people."
New tradition: Like Atkinson and Snoddy, hundreds of volunteers make helping others part of their holiday routine.
On Christmas Day at the Christian Life Center in Rose Park, about 300 volunteers signed up to help out the Salt Lake City Mission. More than 2,500 homeless and needy Utahns were expected to drop in for what was billed as a "holiday dinner."
In truth, it wasn't just holiday ham and turkey slices, but more like an all-day family party complete with nachos and popcorn, holiday wrapped gifts, winter wear giveaways, movie watching, holiday music, periodic preaching and, for some, naps.
The kitchen bustling around her, Karen Hamilton scrubbed and rinsed serving pans, then enlisted her 7-year-old Isabelle to dry. Hamilton, her husband and their four children have been driving down from Rupert, Idaho, for nearly a decade in what's become a "must-do" holiday activity for the whole family.
"It's fun, and it's something the kids look forward to," Hamilton said.
On the serving line, Jeannie Johnson put hunks of turkey breast on throwaway plates that the serving crew heaped with potatoes, gravy and corn before bringing them to tables filled with guests. She used to spend Christmas alone but now celebrates holidays volunteering here all day.
"I don't have any family, so I come here," Johnson said. "I'm with a lot of people."
Volunteers found many ways to pitch in.
Marty Tilt watched the kinetic scene from the back of the gymnasium-sized room where the festivities were underway. She was dropping off her contribution, a half-dozen big shopping bags full of colorful scarves she's knitted since last Christmas.
"It makes me feel good," she said, her son looking on proudly. "I hope someone can make use of them."
Bryan Pella brought his new bride, Kelly, and her two adult daughters to lend a hand. Over the weekend, he drove down from Smithfield with a truckload of coats and other donations from his company, Down Under Sports.
"Even a small thing can mean a lot," said Pella, who's done it for years. "To me, that's the meaning of Christmas, giving back."
A team approach: Atkinson and Snoddy made a point of acknowledging all of the ways people have pitched in, many anonymously.
Their contributions helped fill stockings with personal care products, wrap packages of warm coats and stuff bags of chocolate kisses and Christmas candies all of which the homeless outreach team handed out on their Christmas Eve rounds.
Their donations also helped cover the cost of physician assistant Joel Hunt and aide Leticia Vasquez to follow the van on its rounds and offer blood pressure checks and medical aid to those who needed it.
"Their donations," said Atkinson, "are making a difference in people's lives."
On Christmas night at the St. Vincent de Paul Resource Center downtown Salt Lake City, Atkinson would be back in the thick of it, serving homeless visitors steak dinners prepared by the Grand America Hotel. Among those expected to join her: former Utah Governor and GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman and his family, who have a habit of serving Christmas dinner there for years.