Dunnville restaurant, Simcoe churches make Christmas bright for residents in need

·3 min read

Julia Marchese could be forgiven for feeling a bit like Santa Claus.

For the sixth year, the Dunnville restaurateur will make spirits bright by cooking Christmas dinner for residents in need.

But instead of hosting an old-fashioned family celebration at her bistro, Marchese is hitting the road.

She has persuaded Santa and Mrs. Claus to set aside a few hours of their busy Christmas Eve schedule to visit residents who could use a little help over the holidays.

Each household will receive a full turkey dinner and baskets loaded with toys, essential products and goodies.

Marchese said she can’t wait to see the kids’ smiling faces as the festive caravan approaches.

“The families are going to know we’re on our way, so they’ll stand outside and wait for us,” she said. “Honestly, I just feel so good to see them happy.”

This has not been an easy year for restaurants, and Julia’s Bistro was not immune to the challenge of COVID-19. But Marchese and her husband Paul knew they had to continue their Christmas tradition of helping the less fortunate.

“I think it makes a big, huge difference,” Marchese said.

“Last year I had one of the kids come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Julia — you’re the one who made us so happy last year.’ It’s just heartbreaking. I just want warm memories for them, because I know as a child that would be a warm memory for me — just having something to be excited for.”

And the need has only grown. Last year, the dinner moved from the bistro to the local Legion to accommodate a crowd of 110 people. This year, Marchese has heard from twice that many locals looking for help, including “a lot of new faces.”

The restaurant is donating turkeys and paying employees to do the cooking, while Haldimand residents and businesses have responded to the increased need with more donations, including $2,500 from residents of Sandy Shore Trailer Park in Lowbanks who saved up their empties to cash in for the cause.

“The community is very loving and caring out here,” Marchese said.

Down the highway in Simcoe, a coalition of churches will serve a free takeout Christmas dinner to more than 200 Norfolk County residents whose holidays could use some cheer.

Church Out Serving stepped in to fill a need created when similar initiatives in Port Dover and Delhi were cancelled this year due to the pandemic.

Since March, the volunteer group has delivered more than 11,000 meals to residents struggling with food security, job loss, loneliness or anxiety.

On the menu for Christmas is a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by apple crisp made with donated fruit from a local orchard. Teams of physically distanced volunteers will be in place to make sure meals are handed out safely and with a smile.

“I think it’s really incumbent on us to look after our less fortunate neighbours,” said board chair Eric Haverkamp.

“This has been an even harder season for them than perhaps for the average citizen. We felt that we just can’t not be there on Christmas Day for our community.”

The response from participants and supporters “has been nothing short of fantastic,” he added.

“People are completely relieved and thrilled just to come by and have a hearty Christmas dinner, and bring some joy into their homes.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator