Though the Henry B. González Convention Center is generally a hub for tourists and conventioneers, for a few hours on Saturday it transformed into a celebratory community center for thousands of San Antonians.
Each year, H-E-B gives back to its communities with the Feast of Sharing, serving 250,000 free holiday meals in 33 Texas and Mexico cities. The tradition began in Corpus Christi 31 years ago, said Senior Advertising Account Manager Erin Berchelmann, then spread to other locations throughout the region. This is the 27th year the feast of sharing has taken place in San Antonio.
“We always look to create a really awesome experience for our guests and make it a really special dinner for them,” Berchelmann said, as live music filled the 225,000-square-foot convention center hall, with two dozen people dancing in the open area near the stage.
At long tables running the length of the hall, an estimated 10-15,000 San Antonians received hot honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, and a dinner roll, with a slice of apple pie for dessert. Paper H-E-B placemats listed 31 cities served by Feasts of Sharing, which occur throughout November and December, culminating with a special double-feast in San Antonio and Corpus Christi on the same day.
To augment the meal, free flu shots were offered, along with free eye testing and other health services. Kids in attendance could get their faces painted, sit on Santa’s lap, and get a free age-appropriate book from the Literacy Caravan, sponsored by the San Antonio Library Foundation.
About 1,600 volunteers, drawn from H-E-B employees, church groups, scout troops, and area families, were on hand to help the event run smoothly and stay festive. They welcomed each visitor at the doors, helped them find seats, brought plates of food, and delivered beverages on carts.
Kayla Bogan, 17, and college freshman Dion Collins both volunteered through Doddfield Chapel at Fort Sam Houston. Dressed in colorful Christmas-themed costumes featuring flashing LED lights, they cheerfully gave away bottles of water and cans of soda to anyone who approached.
Bogan said she volunteered to help give back to the community. “A lot of people need help, and I’m very excited and grateful to actually help others,” she said.
Collins said he’s between semesters in his computer science studies, and was looking for things to do. “I could be at home playing video games,” he said, “but I feel like it’s good for me – and anyone else – to build up a habit of volunteering, helping those that you know deserve to be helped.”
Collins noted the diversity of the crowd, which represented all ages and abilities, and hailed from many neighborhoods of the city. “Every single person in this room of thousands of people comes from a different background. And I have the ability to just serve them,” he said.
Of volunteering, Collins said, “I feel like if we all did something like this in our community, we’d all be in a much better place.”
Thirty cheerleaders from Alamo Heights High School lined up outside the entrance to enthusiastically greet guests entering the hall, occasionally bursting into holiday songs. “We really want to make it welcoming for everyone,” said twins Allie and Sophie Johnson.
Decorations and holiday tableaus filled the convention center lobby, with guests pausing on their way in and out of the feast to snap selfies with LED-lit inflatable polar bears and on the porch of a faux-snow covered ski cabin. One guest leaped onto the white vinyl “snow” tarp to mimic making a snow angel.
After taking their selfies in front of a miniature mountainscape, spouses Arthur and Yolanda Garcia said they were celebrating Yolanda’s recent cancer recovery. “It’s Christmas and all, you know,” Arthur said, “and it’s good to get out of the house and get to know people.”
Open seating in long rows along each side of the tables was deliberate, said H-E-B Public Affairs Manager Julie Bedingfield, to foster a sense of community and the possibility of spontaneous introductions. Some families and individuals have made the Feast a yearly tradition, she said, while others might be attending for their first time.
“What we want to do is create community, and create a sense of coming together and getting to know someone that you may not cross paths with,” she said. “For us at H-E-B, it’s just a time to kind of pause and thank people for supporting us throughout the year. We’re very fortunate to serve a variety of Texans, and we want all of those Texans to come and enjoy a warm meal and a festive atmosphere as we celebrate the holidays.”
Near the lobby entrance, Marilu Arriaga waited in her mobility chair along with her two brothers for her daughter to arrive before sitting down for their meals. Arriaga said she heard about the event on WOAI television news, and decided to come for the first time. She regularly shops at H-E-B, and said she appreciates that they provide everything for the community meal. “And it’s very thoughtful for them to remember the people that really need companionship, to be with all the people together, like a family,” she said.