Durham, N.C. — The Durham Rescue Mission transformed into Christmas headquarters Monday as volunteers served meals and shared a little holiday cheer with needy residents who began lining up hours before the annual event.
About 500 volunteers gathered overnight to prepare more than 150 turkeys and arrange donated toys, bags of clothes and groceries for a Christmas Eve giveaway that has become an integral part of the holidays.
The mission served 3,262 meals and handed out 5,346 toys, 4,000 articles of warm clothing and 1,500 bags of groceries.
“The Christmas event is where we like to reach out to the community and give back and give children toys,” mission staffer Tony Gooch said. “Not every child gets a toy for Christmas, so we want to meet that need and put a smile on their face.”
The day is extra special for Gooch because he says as a dad, he feels the joy that the children experience when they unwrap a new toy.
“That’s what it is for us, just seeing this kids smile because most likely they wouldn’t have gotten any toys. So the atmosphere is just wonderful,” he said.
The work is a labor of love for mission founder Ernie Mills, who will spend a marathon 48 hours serving the needy – there’s a breakfast for the homeless on Christams Day – before celebrating the holiday with his own family.
“It’s just a joy here,” Mills said. “The purpose of us being here is just to meet the needs of those coming our way.”
The Christmas meal is one of four events hosted by the faith-based mission each year that draws hundreds of homeless and working poor seeking food, groceries and free clothing. The other events are held at Easter, Thanksgiving and the start of the school year.
"Our first Christmas was 12 individuals," Mills, who opened the mission with his wife, Gail, in 1974. "We've grown quite a bit since then."
The economic downturn has changed the profile of people served by the giveaways, Mills said. In the past few years, he's seen more people who were once solidly in the middle class, then lost their jobs, their homes and their ability to provide Christmas for their families.
"They have nothing, and they come here to get their Christmas," he said. "It's just heartbreaking."
The mission also ministers to the needs of people who are struggling with substance addiction.
"The stories that keep me going, though, are those that come, turn their lives around and become productive citizens," Mills said.
Next year’s Christmas Eve dinner will mark a significant milestone because it will be served indoors in the mission’s new Center For Hope, a multimillion-dollar facility that should be completed in 2013. The facility will have 88 beds, a dining room, classrooms and a counseling office.
“My wife and I started the mission 38 years ago. We never built anything new,” Mills said. “It’s going to be so nice.”