WATERVILLE — The banquet room at the Waterville Elks Lodge was packed on Tuesday afternoon as Mainers gathered to share a Christmas meal together.

From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., people stopped by to enjoy plates of turkey, stuffing, squash, vegetables and cranberry sauce — and later, pie — at the 12th annual Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner. Some even went home with giveaways ranging from Hannaford gift cards to potted poinsettias. And for the children: toy-filled stockings handed out by Santa. There were also sleigh rides.

Nancy Burton, a board member of the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner, estimated that between 800 and 1,000 people attended this year’s event, which is free of charge. Last year, a blizzard kept many people indoors, leading to a lower-than-usual turnout.

“We’re just so happy that the weather cooperated (today),” said Burton. “Last year … we really only fed maybe 250 people.”

Kenny Kane, also known as The Brain, center, keeps the food line moving as nearly 1,000 people are served a turkey dinner at the 12th annual Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner at the Elk’s Lodge in Waterville on Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Roughly 125 volunteers helped staff the dinner on Tuesday, according to Burton. Some sign up to help in advance while others ask to get involved when they walk through the doors. The event aims to provide a gathering place for people who otherwise might spend the holiday by themselves.

Yvonne Budd, of Fairfield, and her husband, Bill, have volunteered at the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner for seven years.

“When you see these people come in and you know that they have nothing, to put a smile on their face, to see them happy like they are, it’s worth it, knowing they’re not alone,” said Yvonne Budd.

She was excited to see a strong turnout on Tuesday.

“I just think this is just awesome,” she said. “It gives them something to look forward to. They’re excited — look at the happy faces, you know? And if they’re home, what are they doing? They’d be inside. This is a hard time of year for a lot of people. To have them here is (wonderful).”

Marianne Cogswell, 73, of Albion has been coming to the dinner since 2011, when her husband passed away.

“(I’m here for) the camaraderie,” Cogswell said. “When you’re a widow by yourself, it’s joyful to be out with other people.”

Cogswell said that if the event did not exist, she would likely be home alone watching Christmas programming on TV. Her two sons live far away.

“We talk on the phone, but it’s not the same,” she added.

Lucian Thomas Merrill, 6, right, the youngest volunteer, hands a piece of pie to Raiden Sidelinger, 6, left, at the 12th annual Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner at the Elk’s Lodge in Waterville on Tuesday. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Attending the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner has become somewhat of a recent tradition for members of the McDaniel, Patrick and Wood families.

“This is our third or fourth year,” said Brenda McDaniel, 51, of Fairfield. “We don’t have family around, except (each other).”

McDaniel was joined at a table by her husband, Raymond, 51, sister-in-law, Lisa Patrick, 50, of Waterville, and nephew Patrick Wood, 25, who lives in Pittsfield.

McDaniel said that some years, the four of them meet more new people than in other years, but she finds the event enjoyable either way. McDaniel likes the philosophy behind the event.

“It doesn’t matter your background or where you come from, they serve everybody,” she said.

Waterville resident Donna Procino, 66, ate at the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner for the first time on Tuesday, after learning about it from her church. Procino said the stuffing was a highlight of the meal.

“I think it’s good for the community,” Procino said.

The Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner was started in 2007 by Ziggy and Kim Lawrence. When the couple couldn’t find a place to volunteer on Christmas Day, they decided to start their own community dinner.

Tuesday’s event was funded by local donors and the Central Maine Family Christmas Dinner board’s year-round fundraising. Burton said that leftover food usually gets donated to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

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