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Christmas dinner brings community together

Janice Ash Sialiano (right) works to package to-go boxes of meals as part of the Community Christmas Dinner pickup and delivery service. Volunteers man their stations and pass the to-go boxes down the line to be filled. Photo provided by Janice Ash Sialiano.

Take a step back in time. It’s September 1989, just a few months before Christmas. Summer is ending and fall is on the horizon. Then, on Sept. 21, Hurricane Huge rips through Horry County. The damage across the county, and South Carolina, is devastating. Homes are destroyed and many people are without power for more than a week.

Fast forward three months. December has arrived and people across Horry County are preparing for Christmas, after enduring the Category Four hurricane weeks prior. Almost beyond belief, an unprecedented snowstorm covers Horry County in over a foot of snow the week of Christmas.

The two intense weather events three months apart triggered a thought for Janice Ash Sialiano. At the time, she was volunteering with the American Red Cross, providing meals to families for several weeks throughout both natural disasters. Standing in a kitchen over a little stove, she and another volunteer wondered about the many people who don’t have a home or anywhere to go for Christmas.

A new Christmas tradition

Christmas dinner is a sacred time for families. A time to laugh, share memories and reflect on the things we’re thankful for. After the devastation and loss in 1989, Sialiano knew she had to create that same opportunity for those who don’t have a home or family with which to spend the holiday. What better way to do that than by bringing people together for Christmas dinner?

The idea for the Community Christmas Dinner was born. “We started calling the fire departments, emergency services, police and whoever could help us get meals out to whoever needed them,” says Sialiano. A local church allowed Sialiano and her team of volunteers to use their kitchen. Five hundred meals were provided to people in Myrtle Beach in the first year.

The event was so successful it’s become an annual Christmas tradition. The Community Christmas Dinner today is a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization. The organization has a board of directors and Sialiano serves as the president. The board is responsible for planning the event and working to coordinate volunteers across multiple counties.

Spreading love and cheer

This year marks the 34th Annual Community Christmas Dinner. “As the dinner has grown over the years, we’ve started expanding into neighboring cities and counties,” says Sialiano. “We went into Murrells Inlet, then into Georgetown and Williamsburg counties and now we’re in Dillon County.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Christmas Dinner hosted a sit-down meal, as well as delivery and pickup. “It was a huge event. We had Santa Claus, Pippy Longstocking, face painting and an amazing meal,” says Sialiano.

For the past few years, meals have been provided by delivery and pick-up only. This year, Sialiano and her team expect to feed over 14,500 people.

Serving up smiles

Trays and trays of prepared green beans sit on the county to be served during the Community Christmas Dinner. Photo provided by Janice Ash Sialiano.

The Community Christmas Dinner takes pride in serving up a smile, along with a nearly two-pound meal. This year, the volunteers and chefs will be responsible for cooking 2,100 pounds of halved chickens and 4,000 pounds each of green beans, mashed potatoes and corn. With the help from the chefs at Crabby Mike’s restaurant in Surfside, volunteers package a full meal, and even to-go meals to help people and families in need.

“The owner of Crabby Mike’s, Mike Arakas, jumped in about 11 or 12 years ago. Since they run a daily buffet, it’s not a big deal for them to make thousands of half chickens for this event, like it would be for you or me,” Sialiano says.

Volunteers, church groups and businesses across Horry and neighboring counties also help with baking 14,000 servings of dessert.

“Each year, five or six ladies and their daughters come in and they’ll make a thousand cookies for us. They’ll put them in little packages. It’s something they look forward to every year because it’s their gift to the community,” says Sialiano.

Sialiano adds the event wouldn’t be possible without the hundreds of volunteers who elect to spend Christmas with their community.

“We have an amazing team of volunteers across the counties we serve,” Sialiano says. “The people who cook, deliver food and donate to this dinner are the reason it happens every year. They are the lifeline of this entire operation.”

Janice Ash Sialiano stands in front of the Horry Electric Cooperative sign with her $500 Who Powers You prize.

Making a difference

Community events like this are the reason Horry Electric, and other South Carolina electric cooperatives, launched the Who Powers You contest this year. This contest is a way to recognize the unsung heroes making a difference.

Sialiano was selected as Horry Electric’s Who Powers You winner. She was awarded a $500 prize. “This $500 will pay for 150 to 200 meals for the Community Christmas Dinner,” she says. After being presented with her prize, she added she would be matching that $500 out of her own pocket to pay for an additional 150 to 200 meals for this year’s event.

“One of the seven cooperative principles that guide us is concern for community,” says Executive Vice President and CEO Danny Shelley. “The work Mrs. Sialiano and her team are doing is admirable and making an amazing impact in our community.”

As the local winner, Sialiano has been entered into the statewide Who Powers You contest for a chance to win $2,500.

Monetary donations are needed to make this event a continued success. If you’re interested in donating to this organization, visit the Community Christmas Dinner Inc. Facebook page. If you or someone you know needs a meal this Christmas, the Community Christmas Dinner Facebook page will post contact information after Thanksgiving. Horry Electric will share these posts to raise awareness for this event.

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