Faith Morgan pointed to the left front corner of the Chattanooga Community Kitchen cafeteria, her voice filled with emotion, the five-year-old memories of her life as one of the city's homeless both tormenting and touching.
"That's the spot my daughter saw Santa Claus five years ago," she said of Niki, who was 9 at the time. "If it wasn't for this place, she wouldn't have seen Santa that year, she wouldn't have had much of a Christmas."
Five years later, Santa again will visit the CCK on 11th Street this morning from 10 until noon, his final stop at the end of a very long, hard night.
But Morgan is no longer a "client," as Community Kitchen executive director Charlie Hughes likes to call the people he helps. She's now the charity's food director, which means she'll oversee a Christmas dinner for as many as 1,200 hungry folks today between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"Your traditional Christmas dinner," she said. "Turkey and dressing. Sweet potatoes. Green beans. Rolls. Pumpkin pie."
Beyond the menu, there's one very big difference from the other 363 days -- not counting Christmas and Thanksgiving -- that takes place at this meal.
"Normally, those who eat here go through a line," Hughes said. "On Christmas, our staff and volunteers serve our guests at their tables."
It is a great credit to our town that Hughes already has had 175 folks volunteer to take part in today's feast, joining many of the charity's 50 paid staffers.
"And we'll have 75 to 100 more volunteers just show up on Christmas morning," Hughes added.
Long-term, it's the volunteering of money that the CCK most needs. It currently stands nearly $200,000 short of its annual operating budget of $700,000. Hughes expects the Kitchen's Fast Day campaign -- skip one meal and donate the savings to the CCK -- to make up much of that gap over the next month, but Hughes also says, "Most of our donations are $100 or less, so we need a lot of people to help us. And we're seeing a greater need than ever before. We'll serve 200,000 meals this year, and we expect that number to grow going forward."
Those wishing to help the CCK can donate online at www.homelesschattanooga.org, in person at 727 E. 11th St., or by mailing a check to P.O. Box 11203, Chattanooga, TN 37401.
But for today, Christmas Day, Hughes and his staff are focusing all their attention on the precious present, on those 1,200 or more men, women and children in need of food and fellowship and a brief break from the cold.
"We'll have Santa, of course," he said Monday. "And we'll play Christmas movies, though we haven't decided which ones. And there will be goody bags for everyone. A toy or two for the children; socks, a hygiene kit, hats and gloves for the adults. Looking ahead, we can always use donations of blankets, coats, hats and gloves, because it's only going to get colder in January."
When Morgan walked through the CCK's doors for the first time on Dec. 8, 2008, she had been homeless for nine months despite having worked for 17 years in the food service industry. A victim of domestic violence, she was desperate for help to create a better life for herself and her daughter.
"A lot of people have tunnel vision when it comes to the homeless," she said. "If you're clean and your hair's brushed, they assume you couldn't be homeless. But 35 percent of the homeless have jobs. The hard part is, they think that's as good as it gets. They don't realize a place like this can help them change their lives."
The CCK offers expert training in four areas: food service, recycling, maintenance and thrift store. Morgan was a natural for food service and she's risen quickly through the ranks. Yet she is far from unique. Eighty-five percent of the 200 or so who enter the CCK's work program each year complete the course.
"We just had an 18-year-old girl find a job at Komatsu," Hughes said. "She came in the other day to tell us about the apartment she's now living in. She told us she owns two folding chairs and an air mattress, but she's never felt better about herself. She said she looked around at her apartment, broke into tears and said, 'I was crying out of happiness.' Those stories are why we do this."
Hughes once coached middle school sports at Tyner. More than once he has coached his former players on those youth teams on how to win in the game of life.
"We're constantly telling our clients that the Community Kitchen is not a destination," Hughes said. "This is a pass through to take you to a better life."
To that end, 51-year-old Vickie Ollie, currently working 20 hours a week at the kitchen, said her ultimate goal is "to find long-term employment."
Morgan once had a better life with steady employment before the abuse began. Now she has one again, but in between she developed great empathy and sympathy for those who wind up on the street, especially during the holiday season.
"You see more people down, depressed, lonely," she said. "It's a hard time of the year for someone who's lost."
We say the prayer at my church every Sunday during Advent. In part, it reads: "We pray ... for all of those who travel with more baggage than they can carry by themselves."
This was why Hughes left coaching for charity work. To help lessen the load, if only for the singular power of a hot meal to warm cold bones.
Or as the Virginia Woolf quote stenciled above the cafeteria line reads: "One cannot think well, love well or sleep well if one has not dined well."
"We're not here to judge," Hughes said. "We're here to help."
So he shows up every day not to preach but to teach, hopeful that three meals a day can lead to one significant change in direction.
It's left him so strapped for time that he almost never watches sports anymore, nor does he typically allow the viewing of sports at the CCK.
"If the TV's on, it's probably running an instructional tape to teach someone about a job," he said. "I watched one college football game all year. Of course, it was Alabama-Auburn, so I'll have to agree with my wife that I picked a pretty good one."
He's also picked more than a few good folks to highlight his message, including 59-year-old David Currington.
"I'm from South Pittsburg," he said. "I volunteered for five years. Didn't need money. Just wanted to help. I've been an employee the last five years. My granddaddy was a preacher. He always told me that if you can, you need to try to help people. That's what we do here. We try to help. People who don't have anywhere else to go can always come here."
And isn't that kind of how Christmas began long, long ago, in a manger far, far away?
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...