With mops and buckets in hand, the Reinhard family perused the aisles of people feasting on free Christmas meals donated by H-E-B for the 23rd Annual H-E-B Feast of Sharing Dinner.
The Reinhards, along with 2,500 other volunteers, served an estimated 15,000 people in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Saturday afternoon. An estimated 3,000 additional meals will be delivered to people who were not able to attend the event, according to Lacey Kotzur, H-E-B spokeswoman.
Gene Reinhard said volunteering at the Feast has become a holiday tradition for his wife and kids. Each year, they hop on the VIA bus, which is free for volunteers, and head into the city. This year, they were joined by their longtime friends, the Sherer family.
“We feel good about helping people out,” he said. “It’s not just going to work every day. (Today) it’s about helping your fellow man.”
Reinhard said he brought his family to volunteer eight years ago because he wanted to give his kids a new experience and show them what it is like to help others. His two youngest children, Jamie and Isaac, who are now 21 and 17 respectively, joined their parents Saturday afternoon.
Isaac Reinhard said he has always enjoyed serving the less fortunate, although it means something different to him now that he is older.
“When you’re a little kid, you don’t realize that some people are needy,” he said. “But as you grow up, you realize that people do need help and that it’s fun to service them.”
Since 2007, the Reinhards have manned the same section of the dining hall – sometimes pushing mops, other times serving food. Gene’s wife, Darlene, said she has learned to recognize some faces year-to-year and gets recognized by returning guests herself.
During the event, the Convention Center transformed into a dining hall with dozens of long, cafeteria-style tables covered in green plastic table cloths. Red and green streamers hung from the ceiling and a mariachi band played on stage. Before the food was served, a priest came onto the stage to lead the thousands of guests and volunteers in prayer.
After the prayer, hats returned to the tops of heads and chatter resumed as an army of volunteers emerged from the back carrying platters of food.
Among those being served was Terry Kemp, an Iowa native who moved to San Antonio in 2009. Although this was his first time at the Feast, he said he would likely return because he likes eating and connecting with friends during the holidays.
“It’s good because I don’t really have any family,” Kemp said. “I’m kind of by myself.”
Another guest, San Antonio native, Doris Sarabia, said she came to the Feast for the first time four years ago with her three nieces and mother, who was nearing the end of an unsuccessful battle against cancer. Sarabia said she wasn’t able to return to the event after 2011 because it brought back painful memories of her mother, who died later that year.
Today, Sarabia sits at the crowded cafeteria table with her friend Linda, who is there to provide emotional support.
“It was hard for me to come but I am glad I came because it makes me feel (my mother’s) presence, like she is here with us,” Sarabia said.
Before she came Saturday afternoon, Sarabia said she prayed to her mother to let her know where she was going. Sarabia plans to wait for the Elvis impersonator to arrive at the Feast so that she can dance with him, just like her mother did four years ago.
“(This event) is more than a just plate of food, it’s the soul,” Sarabia said. “We are all here together.”
In addition to the thousands of pounds of plated turkey, mashed potatoes, vegetables and pie, H-E-B offers various free social services in the back of the venue. Booths from various nonprofits that work with H-E-B throughout the year offered information and direct services to the guests such as flu shots, free phone calls and vision screenings. Crafts and face painting booths are offered for the kids in attendance.
“The dinner is about not just the meal,” said Kotzur. “It’s about having a full experience and getting some help if you need it. (Our guests) come out here and have the meal, dance and if there are any social services they can benefit from, they are right here for them.”