A Warm Meal and Good Cheer for Those in Need

Issue Date: 
December 8, 2014

Much of Pittsburgh will be dark, still, and silent in the predawn hours of Christmas morning. But on Pitt’s campus in Oakland, lights will flicker on in the kitchens of the Market Central dining hall beneath Litchfield Towers. The first few volunteers will have arrived to start the day’s work, spreading joy, comfort, and care to Pittsburghers in need. 

By 11 a.m., Market Central will be bright and bustling. At the food stations, heaps of ham and roasted turkey will steam beside platters of sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese. Cranberry sauce, salads, green beans, and rolls will compete for attention with pies, cakes, and cookies. Children will hold on tightly to brightly wrapped gifts—or tear into them, squealing with delight at their findings. Adults will enjoy their own gift bags of snacks, toiletries, and items of apparel to keep them warm through the winter. In the festively decorated dining hall, a band will play for the crowd. And all around, wearing red Santa hats and grinning, will be members of the Pitt community, making sure that all goes off without a hitch. 

Now in its ninth year, Christmas Day at Pitt is expected to give holiday cheer to almost 2,200 members of the Pittsburgh community this December, the largest such event in the region. A partnership between the University, Pitt’s food services provider Sodexo, and the Salvation Army of Western Pennsylvania, the event relies on more than 200 volunteers and generous donations from the Pitt community and Sodexo. 

“Pitt is a university of the community,” said John Wilds, Pitt’s assistant vice chancellor for community relations. “This event is Pitt coming together as a group to help others within our community.”

Wilds helps to plan and coordinate the event with Kannu Sahni, Pitt’s director of community relations, and Abdou Cole, Sodexo resident district manager. Together, they have facilitated a tradition that began on campus in 2006 when the Salvation Army approached Pitt with an urgent request—to host a holiday dinner for the disadvantaged because the original sponsor was no longer able to do so. 

That year, the Salvation Army and its network of human services agencies provided tickets for a hot Dec. 25 dinner in Pitt’s Market Central to approximately 500 of the area’s most needy individuals and families. The next year, the number rose to 650, and then to 850, and then 1,000. By 2013, volunteers served more than 2,000 meals during the three-hour event. Recently, Pitt has also invited international students, who may not be able to return home for the holidays, to join the celebration.

Attendees get more than a good meal—each child receives a wrapped, age- and gender-specific gift, and each adult is given a gift bag. To-go boxes of food are packed up and provided for families whose elderly or ill members were unable to attend in person.

“Everyone leaves with something,” said Cole.

“Until we run out!” Wilds added. 

Each gift item is donated by the Pitt community, and this year’s two drives—one for children’s gifts and one for socks, hats, scarves, and gloves—are in full swing. Some schools and departments create friendly competitions to see which can collect the most donations. Members of the Pitt men’s and women’s athletic teams help wrap presents and prepare gift bags. In fact, excitement about the event is so great that the number of those wanting to volunteer on Dec. 25 often exceeds the 200 spots available. 

“We’ve never had to twist anyone’s arm to help with this event,” Sahni said, laughing. “The spirit of giving back drives our community.”

The same goes for Sodexo’s staff, with many donating their time and skills, not only on Christmas, but also on Christmas Eve, when much of the food is prepared.

“They feel that things have been good for them, and that it is a great thing to be able to help families who are less fortunate,” said Cole about his employees.

Pitt volunteers, often accompanied by family members, prepare and serve food, wash dishes, sweep floors, stand in the cold to help guests who need assistance, and distribute presents. Meanwhile, John Kozar, assistant vice chancellor of human resources, and his wife, Veronica, join the festivities as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

For all of the Pitt coordinators and volunteers, making a positive difference in the lives of other Pittsburghers is the best reward for all of the hard work.

“The need is felt greatest around the holidays,” says Sahni. “Our lives tend to revolve around this very special period of time where spending time together with family and children becomes even more important. This cheerful celebration together, we feel, gives hope and encouragement to these families and individuals so they can deal with their problems and find their way back on their feet. We’re very fortunate to be able to assist in this.”