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300 needy and hungry people enjoy free meal in Buffalo Dream Center

Ragged coats. Mismatched shoes. Tired faces.

Nancy Smith looked out at the nearly 300 people who had gathered Sunday afternoon for a free, warm holiday meal in the Buffalo Dream Center Church on Pearl Street downtown and realized how fortunate her life has been in comparison.

"I have everything," she said. "Health, wealth, my kids. These people don't have what we have."

The poor and hungry who gathered Christmas Eve were exactly the reason that Smith, 60, and her husband decided to volunteer at the church.

Their job, along with dozens of other volunteers, was to serve as waiters and waitresses.

"To give three, four hours of my time is nothing in comparison to what they go through," she said.

The Buffalo Dream Center, run by the Rev. Eric Johns, ministers to the poor and hungry.

Sunday marked the second time Johns' church teamed with Hearts for the Homeless, a mobile soup kitchen, to serve hot meals indoors on Christmas Eve.

Every Thanksgiving, Johns spends six days sleeping in the streets and shelters in and around Buffalo to raise awareness -- and donations -- about homelessness.

Johns said many of the dinner guests Sunday were people he encountered during the days he spent homeless this fall.

Among those enjoying a hot meal Christmas Eve was Gabrielle Joyner, 17, as she juggled eating her own food while bottle-feeding her 2-month-old son, LaMar.

This was a tumultuous year for the teenage mom, but she said the birth of her son has given added meaning to her favorite holiday. "I'm going to spend some time with my family on Christmas," she said. "I love Christmas."

Also among the diners was Jim Thompson, 70, a former short-order cook and Merchant Marine member who now struggles to make the most of his Social Security check.

With a big, bushy near-white beard and round rosy cheeks, he looks remarkably like Santa Claus. "No, I don't," he grumbled but then broke into a smile. "But I hear that all the time."

No one seemed happier Sunday than Ron Jenkins, 37, a City Mission resident who came to the church to volunteer.

"It's glorious to be able to give back," he said.

After two decades of drinking and doing drugs, Jenkins said, he turned his life around in October by finding God.

He showed off proudly how his hands no longer shake before he headed back to the kitchen to pick up more meals to serve.

"This has been the best Christmas I've had in more than 20 years," he said.


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