COLUMBIA – Families and friends gathered Tuesday to share a feast with a big jolly man dressed in red who handed out candy canes and presents to kids while carols floated through the air.
The Voluntary Action Center hosted its 18th annual Christmas in July event at the Missouri United Methodist Church. The center provided low-income families and community members in Columbia with a free meal and activities.
"I think it's a good thing," said Tameka Williams, who brought her goddaughter and godson. "It brings the kids and families together, and we need to have more people to help the community."
Many of the adults attending expressed similar appreciation for the event and those sponsoring it.
"They ought to have more of this, you know," said Benjamin Simmons, 82. He also said he was encouraged to see people working together to help others in their community.
The kids, of course, were more concerned with Santa Claus and their extra opportunity to woo him for future presents.
Molly Schooley, 9, said the most important part of the evening was "at least to be able to talk to Santa." Her mother, Kim Schooley, said she couldn't say no when Molly told her about the event.
"When you've got four kids begging you to come see Santa, you're kind of outnumbered," she said.
Children waiting in line for food squealed with delight once they laid their eyes upon the jolly old man ringing his silver bell and passing out hugs.
"You know what I want for Christmas?" said Kelvin Rico, 5. "A motorcycle bike!"
Kelvin left the event with a full stomach and a NASA spaceship puzzle.
Cindy Mustard, the center's executive director, said her favorite part of the event was giving kids the chance to see Santa in July.
"We need to raise awareness that there are needs in the community not just during the holidays," Mustard said.
Jerry Mathis, a three-time volunteer at the event, understands how the event impacts the community.
"I think it makes the community aware of how many people here are living below the poverty level," Mathis said. "People get nutritious food, and it also gives volunteers the opportunity to interact with them."
The meal featured fried chicken, salad, baked beans, cole slaw and potato salad that was all donated by local businesses. Mustard said they prepared enough food for 400 people. Sponsors purchase $10 meal tickets, which effectively works like a donation to the center.
Mustard said the event's benefits are twofold: the center raises money and serves the community at the same time. She said so far the event had raised $13,000, which is only $2,000 away from the center's goal.
"I think in these tough economic times it's important to do anything we can to help," said Rob Meyers, a first-time volunteer at the event.
Guy Jones said he has utilized many of the services offered by the center, including employment assistance and free or reduced bus tickets.
"I hope that every area of the Columbia/Boone County area will support this worthy cause, as well as other wothy causes, so Columbia will be all that it can be," Jones said.