Red Andrews dinner provides Christmas meal with a side of kindness to those in need
It's been a hard year for Red Andrews Christmas Dinner attendee Rachel McCauley, but she was smiling Sunday as she sat down to a meal at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City.
"This was the worst year of my life," McCauley said, who spent Christmas Eve sleeping on a cot at City Rescue Mission.
In 2016, McCauley lost her house, as well as custody of her three children.
It was also a bad year for McCauley's friend, Steve Shell, who also came to eat and be surrounded by children and families at the Christmas Dinner.
"This is the first time I've been homeless," Shell said. The dinner and kindness of volunteers at the event gave him hope for next year, he said.
"It reaffirms your faith in people," Shell said. "It makes me hopeful for myself — that I can get better and be able to join them to be one of the givers."
It takes an estimated 800 to 1,000 volunteers every year to put on the event, said Red Andrews organizer Mary Blankenship Pointer, who has been volunteering with the community Christmas dinner since the 1980s.
About 1,500 people were already in line before dawn Sunday for the dinner and toy giveaway, she said.
"They get here around midnight, and the line is out the door by the early morning," said Pointer.
Most of the people the dinner serves are in need, whether it be a need of food, human companionship, or Christmas gifts for their children.
"Most of these people are the working poor," she said. "It's just honest, hardworking people who are working two or three jobs to try and support their families."
There's also military members who can't get home for the holidays and many seniors who don't want to eat alone on Christmas, Pointer said.
This year's dinner included a blanket drive, inspired by schoolchildren who put blankets instead of toys on their Christmas lists, Pointer said. A coat drive — now in its third year — gives Red Andrews attendees of all ages something warm to wear when they leave the dinner. Children also get to take home a bag of fresh fruit.
Red Andrews organizer Ken Cassil's great uncle, Ernest "Red" Andrews and wife, Jean, held the first Oklahoma City Christmas dinner in the 1940s — sources differ on the exact year.
Standing in the convention center hall crowded with people lined up to eat the turkey dinner and get toys after sitting on Santa's lap, Cassil said the goal of the event has always remained the same.
"You can see the needs of the poor that are here in the community, and we try and serve them for one day, but it's just for one day," he said.
Andrews, a local boxing and wrestling promoter, was known as "Red" for his copper-colored hair. According to local legend, Andrews paid for the first dinner himself and invited people off the street to join him for the meal.
Andrews died in 1977, but an army of volunteers, family and friends have carried on the tradition of organizing the annual community meal.
If the weather is bad, attendance can hover near 3,000 but warmer temperatures have led attendance to be from 6,000 to 7,000 in the past few years, Pointer said.
Organizers formed the Red Andrews Dinner Foundation in 2012 to ensure the event would live on. Cassil is on the foundation's board, in order to continue his family's ties to the annual event.
Volunteer Tom Nix has provided live music at the Red Andrews dinner for the past several years, playing Christmas songs on an electric keyboard for hours at a time.
Nix starts playing about 8 in the morning, "just to bring some joy to the volunteers," and he doesn't take a break until well after noon, he said.
"There's such excitement and energy here, that I can really play all day as long as my fingers don't give out," Nix said.
Nix said he likes his perch near Santa Claus and his giant mountain of donated toys, because that where he gets to see the expressions on children's faces.
"It probably made their year to be here, and I love to see that joy," Nix said.