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Falls family makes Easter dinner for hundreds of the city’s needy

NIAGARA FALLS – The aroma of fresh, hot turkey, ham and chicken wafted through the open side window of the little house on Ashland Avenue, where a line of hungry people waited eagerly Sunday to receive a packaged home-cooked meal for their families.

One by one, they stepped to the window, greeted Matt and Yvonne Davis – often by name, with an update on their family – and gratefully accepted the plastic foam containers handed to them. Some also received Easter baskets or gift bags for children, or perused a table of clothing and small appliances.

And all of it was free. “They’re so happy we’re doing this,” said Yvonne Davis, 61. “We hand it to them, and they say thank you.”

For more than 30 years, people in Niagara Falls who can’t afford an Easter dinner of their own have converged on the Davis’ home at 1317 Ashland for a full-course, take-out meal for their family. Known as the “Lord’s Day Dinner,” it’s become a tradition for many, who return year after year, coming not only from the neighborhood nearby but from all over town.

“They’ll walk here, they’ll drive here, some will come on bicycles, some in wheelchairs,” Matt Davis said in an early-afternoon interview, as he pulled another sheet of plastic wrap from the industrial-sized box. “With the weather being what it is today, we’re expecting a larger crowd than last year.”

Indeed, with temperatures in the 60s and the sun shining, they came in droves. Even before 2 p.m. – less than two hours after starting – the Davises had served more than 300 meals. And they continued until 6 p.m., albeit at a slower pace, topping out at around 400 meals for the day.

Two local community-based agencies also provide meals on Easter Sunday, but they close at 2 p.m., so the Davises typically get the overflow.

“They start coming before noon and wait until we’re ready and then we start serving,” he said. “It’s a rush when it first starts out, then there’s a lull.”

From the food and garnishes to the containers, paper products, wrap and gift baskets, everything was donated – contributed by individuals, area churches, Sam’s Club and Walmart, and organizations such as Heart, Love & Soul, a Niagara Falls-based food pantry.

“We couldn’t do it without the support of donations from private individuals and organizations,” said Matt Davis, 59, adding that they take donations all year. “When we put the call out, the Niagara community definitely comes together.”

But the work of cooking, assembling and serving the food belongs to the Davises, who typically prepare for about 400 meals. “This is an undertaking in itself,” he said, estimating they cook “easily more” than 1,000 pounds of meat every year. “For doing it for 30 years, you would assume you’d have everything right. But there’s always last-minute glitches.”

The packaged meals include ham, turkey, chicken, mashed potatoes, peas and corn, salad and a dessert, enclosed and then covered in plastic wrap.

“I do appreciate it. It’s real nice, and it’s pretty good, too,” said Robin Horton, 40, who lives down the street, but was there for her first time. “I think it’s a real good thing for the community, especially since not everybody is able to go out and buy big meals for their family. And it’s such a nice day out, too.”

There’s no need for reservations or ordering in advance. And while the goal is to serve the needy, the Davises don’t ask questions or ask for identification, either. “We don’t do that,” Matt Davis said. “This is all faith-based. We’ve never asked anyone for proof of income. Just as we’ve been blessed, we want to bring the blessing to others.”

Yvonne Davis said the idea for the meals began three decades ago, when “the Lord called me to sacrifice and make a feast for people like you would for your family.” Her husband joined her, and it has grown through word of mouth, fliers and media announcements.

“It was a calling that she had. We simply followed it,” Matt Davis said. “And the need is definitely there.”

It’s not just once a year, either. The Davises also offer free meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, but those meals are hosted at the VFW 917 LaSalle Griffon Post on Seneca Street, not at their house.

“It is satisfying and you have to have a passion and faith to do what we do,” Matt Davis said. “There’s not a lot of people who could come into a situation like this and do what we’ve been doing for as long without a love of what we do. It’s basically giving back to the community.”

It has also become a family affair for the Davises, who started the endeavor when their own children were young. On Sunday, their daughter, Tishnell, was in the kitchen cooking and serving the meat, potatoes and vegetable into the containers. Her 14-year-old son manned the clothing table, while her 6-year-old daughter helped inside the house.

“All our kids are involved from when they were young and now we have grandkids,” Matt Davis said. “So hopefully the tradition can be passed from our children to our grandchildren.”

In fact, their living room was filled with boxes of Easter baskets, toys and gift bags, while the small kitchen was crowded with tall silver pots full of gravy and vegetables, a pair of roasters for the meat and a wide black pot full of mashed potatoes.

“I love the fact that I give back. I like seeing the reaction, especially the kids,” Tishnell Davis said. “I’m teaching that it’s not only about getting, but also about giving. I was just fortunate to have parents that give and care, so I share my parents with the whole community.”

As the day wore on, Matt Davis was already looking ahead. “At the end of the day, a good strong coffee and a foot massager, oh, let me tell you, it goes a long way,” he said with a sigh.