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A little holiday dinner for 1,300

BEAVER FALLS, Pa. - Stephen and Rebecca Salopek celebrated Christmas this year in their usual holiday tradition, hosting dinner for family and friends - about 1,300 of them.

BEAVER FALLS, Pa. - Stephen and Rebecca Salopek celebrated Christmas this year in their usual holiday tradition, hosting dinner for family and friends - about 1,300 of them.

The Beaver Falls couple spent the day - and months leading up to it - organizing and preparing for the annual Christmas dinner sponsored by Christian Assembly Church. What started out 23 years ago as an outreach for the homeless, or those who had nowhere to go on Christmas, is now an extraordinary outpouring of generosity and goodwill that provides dinner to all who wish to attend, as well as Christmas gifts for children, and coats, hats and gloves for those in need.

"If I had known it would become what it is today, I would have started it sooner," Stephen said with a laugh.

The annual dinner had a humble beginning in 1994. Christian Assembly in Beaver Falls had been doing several community outreach programs, Rebecca said, and one November evening, her husband turned to her in bed and said, "What would you think about cooking dinner on Christmas Day?"

"I told him, 'I think you should roll over and go back to sleep,' " Rebecca said. "I thought, 'Who in the world is going to come out to a [church dinner] on Christmas? Who's going to come and help?' " Still, the Salopeks took the idea to their pastor, Dale Russo, who told them, "That sounds like a wonderful idea." The church congregation thought so as well, and the idea of providing a Christmas dinner for those who might be "hungry or alone" took off.

That first year, volunteers from the congregation served dinner to about 50 people in the social hall in the church basement. With every passing year, more people attended. By the time the church was serving 300 people, the Salopeks knew they had reached their limit. That's when the owners of the Berkshire Hall in Beaver Falls offered their facility. The dinner moved there for several years, until attendance reached about 800, and that's when Big Beaver Falls Area School District officials offered the use of the school cafeteria, where the dinner has been held for the last six years.

The preparations began last week, when Stephen and another Christian Assembly member, Joe Knaus, made their annual trip to Sam's Club to buy the food for the dinner. The shopping list included 20 turkeys, 20 hams, 168 pounds each of sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, canned corn, green beans and stuffing, 70 dozen dinner rolls, 30 gallons of iced tea, and 50 gallons of coffee. The food prep began on Thursday when items were unloaded at the high school, and a crew of volunteers joined the Salopeks at 5 a.m. Sunday to begin cooking.

"One of the things that surprised us [over the years] was we thought we would have trouble getting volunteers to come out on Christmas Day," Stephen said. "We have nearly 400 people coming to help. We have never lacked for volunteers." Rebecca said the number of volunteers has been overwhelming from the start.

But all of the help and assistance would go for naught without someone to organize the event, and that's where the Salopeks shine. They have lists of who is charge of everything from serving the food to clearing the tables or assisting with the distribution of Christmas gifts or coats and hats. They are also in touch throughout the year with other groups and organizations that collect new toys and winter coats for the event, and with businesses that donate food, dinner items and materials needed.

Stephen, a semiretired contractor, said that once the dinner is over, he and his wife will review how things went to see what changes or improvements can be made for next year.

"We made the joke that we'll doing this in our scooters," Rebecca said when asked how long they would continue to oversee the dinner.