Erin Bellinger doesn’t remember a Christmas morning that didn’t involve bringing a hot meal to someone in need.
Since her early childhood, the 21-year-old Mayfield resident has made it a tradition to volunteer her morning on the holiday to deliver a feast to Fulton County residents who might not otherwise have a Christmas dinner. While other children were opening presents, Bellinger and her parents were bringing a bit of holiday cheer to those less fortunate.
“We just kind of made it a tradition,” she said while waiting on a winding assembly line at the Church of the Holy Spirit’s activity room Sunday. “I really love doing it.”
Susan and Barney Bellinger decided volunteering on their holiday morning would set a good example for their daughter and encourage her to spend time helping the less fortunate in the community. Susan Bellinger said the experience has also helped show her daughter a darker side of life — a place where people struggle with poverty and loneliness.
“We are blessed,” she said of her family. “And we wanted to be able to share that blessing.”
Hundreds of volunteers like the Bellingers crowded into the church to lend a hand with the meal. Some sliced turkey or washed dishes, while others ladled food into outstretched containers held by volunteers assembling the meals in boxes.
The first volunteers began showing up at the crack of dawn. Others followed after a morning cup of coffee. They readily passed up a lazy Christmas morning exchanging gifts in favor of spreading the spirit of selflessness.
“It’s really a good deed in which everyone can help,” beamed 13-year-old Alesha Heacock of Gloversville. “It’s good to know you can help make a difference.”
It’s also a family affair. Grandparents David and Maureen Heacock helped out in the kitchen, while Alesha’s father, Chris Heacock, served as the young volunteer’s driver on two deliveries.
“And we’re back for more,” he said.
The dinner continues to grow every year. Volunteers doled out about 300 dinners when the effort started 13 years ago; they were on target to deliver nearly 1,000 meals throughout Fulton County this year.
The demand is a somber footnote to the goodwill coursing through the church. The county’s population continues to age and the ongoing economic downturn has only served to further stress the needs of the elderly.
“Every year, it grows more and more,” said Greg Gottung, one of the organizers.
But the growth in demand has been coupled with an increase in volunteers. Gottung doesn’t need to lift a finger to find a wealth of able-bodied helpers when Christmas Day rolls around.
“I don’t call anybody,” he said. “It’s such a great project that everybody likes to be a part of it.”
Jamin Clemente, a youth ministry teacher at the church, always encourages her young students to help her with deliveries. Once they come down to help once, she finds they’ll come back a second and third time.
“When they become the age to drive, they don’t come with me anymore,” she said. “They come down themselves. They want to keep doing it.”
Clemente isn’t surprised. She said volunteering for the dinner always seems to raise spirits, evident by the comments she often gets afterward.
“They’re in the Christmas spirit,” she said. “One gentleman last year told me that it put him in a great mood all day long.”
Organizer Donald Fleischut praised the volunteers for their effort to bring joy to the less fortunate. And like all the volunteers, he was happy to make a difference.
“The need is there, so we’re happy to fill it,” he said.