RACINE – As Christmas music played and dozens of volunteers served up food at the Hospitality Center Thursday morning, Heather Premo felt some relief.
Premo has stayed at the Hospitality Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 614 Main St., for the past week and a half after leaving what she said was an unsafe and unhealthy living situation.
On Christmas morning, she was one of an estimated 350 people treated to a free brunch at the center, which got so many donations and volunteers for the meal it opened its doors to the general public.
“It helps the stress,” said Premo, 38. “Nobody around here really gives you a chance to be sad. If they see you looking sad, they’re going to come over and give you a little shove in the right direction.”
The Hospitality Center, which opened in 2011 and provides service to the homeless and near homeless people of Racine, has always served meals on Christmas.
But this year marked the first community-wide meal. The center was contacted earlier this month by staff members at Rosie’s restaurant, 1804 Taylor Ave., who held a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless and wanted to put on a similar event for Christmas.
“It was such a wonderful feeling to serve these people and see the smiles on their faces,” said Cynthia Vasey, a server at Rosie’s and one of the organizers of Thursday’s event. “I was like, I’m ready for some more. I want to see more smiles. I want to see more people happy. I want to make sure more people are fed.”
Thanks to social media and word of mouth, organizers had more than three dozen volunteers and numerous donations of food and gifts in a matter of days. With the amount of food and large number of volunteers, organizers decided to invite the entire community.
The Rev. Kevin Stewart, the director of the Hospitality Center, said he was overwhelmed by the response. Many attendees told him they would have otherwise been alone on Christmas, he said.
“We hope this is a tradition that starts now and keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Stewart said.
Ron Starling, 47, said he was thankful to have a place to stay and a meal to eat on Christmas Day.
Starling has been at the center for about the past two weeks and said “the blessings have been many,” including Christmas brunch.
“Without this,” he said, “I’d be out there in the cold.”