Emily Swenson is a reference and engagement librarian at the National Association of REALTORS®.
Ensuring a Full Plate of Caring
Motivated to help displaced people after a 1989 hurricane, REALTOR® Janice Ash Sialiano created an annual Christmas dinner that has grown to serve 12,000 people in need of a place to celebrate the holidays.
September 2, 2020
- Janice Ash Sialiano has organized a community dinner on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for 31 years.
- The dinner, which began with 15 volunteers feeding 50 diners, is now the largest Christmas Day dinner in the state, serving nearly 12,000 people annually.
- Sialiano has raised more than $892,500 over the years to provide dinner for a total of 171,000 people, served by 14,500 volunteers.
Janice Ash Sialiano was reading a newspaper in the waiting room at her doctor’s office in the fall of 1989 when she came across a call for volunteers from the local Red Cross chapter in the days following Hurricane Hugo. The storm had cut a vast swath of destruction through the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean. Something in her heart told her she needed to help. But Sialiano, GRI, could never have guessed that this moment would begin an a 31-year-and-counting commitment to provide food, shelter, fellowship, and community to over 171,000 people in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area.
After six weeks of serving meals to almost 1,000 people a day in the aftermath of the hurricane, the immediate need for food and shelter began to fade. Still, Sialiano worried that many of the families she had been serving would not have a place or the resources to celebrate the upcoming holidays, and so Community Christmas Dinner was born.
The Christmas Community Dinner
Sialiano has worked year-round ever since to raise money, recruit volunteers, coordinate donation drives, and collaborate with local businesses and restaurants to pull off the two-day event that starts each December 24. The dinner, which began with 15 volunteers feeding 50 diners, is now the largest Christmas Day dinner in the state, and is held at four locations across three counties. Many of those in attendance are seniors or people experiencing homelessness and food insecurity, though anyone who needs a place to spend the holidays is encouraged to attend.
For the 10 days leading up to Christmas Eve, Sialiano and her team of over 500 volunteers, including many from local real estate brokerages, normally prepare more than 6,800 pounds of turkey, 3,300 pounds of ham, 2,400 pounds of sweet potato casserole, and a commensurate amount of the rest of the fixings, under the supervision of local chefs.
“Go with your heart. Start small, reach out to already existing organizations, find a passion.” —Janice Ash Sialiano
Sialiano raises $45,000 each year in order to procure enough food, not only for the sit-down dinner but for an extra 2 to 3 pounds of food for each person to take home. Meals to go are also delivered to people who are homebound.
Though organizing, preparing, and serving a veritable feast for almost 12,000 people annually is no small feat, the Community Christmas Dinner is much more than a meal. Sialiano’s generosity and dedication has inspired others to broaden the scope of the gathering: “One year, a woman walked into the dinner, in December, with no coat on and I saw someone literally give her the coat off of their back,” Sialiano recalls. The next year, two high school students who had witnessed the gesture showed up with hundreds of coats that they had collected at school, effectively starting an annual coat drive.
In addition to the winter coats, other items including clothing, blankets, pillows, and toiletries are donated each year. A local businessman, in collaboration with the nonprofit organization Samaritan’s Feet, provided a pair of new shoes and socks for every child in attendance. Children are also treated to a visit from Santa and a toy, while their parents can browse donated items and take what they need.
Sialiano’s giving nature isn’t limited to the holiday season. Often, clients preparing to move mention that they will leave behind furniture, pots and pans, and other household items. Sialiano makes sure the items get directly into the hands of people in need.
Many volunteers, including some of Sialiano’s clients and colleagues at Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage, say she creates a deeply caring environment that gets others to become passionate about the cause. Sialiano is always keeping an eye out for new recruits, especially those who recently suffered a loss or may not have close friends or family in the area. “Not everyone inspires this type of dedication from volunteers, but Janice oozes passion. She is a leader with a vision, a dream, and is committed to leading by example,” says Nanci Conley, a long-time volunteer and former development director for the local Red Cross.
Because of COVID-19, many aspects of this year’s Community Christmas Dinner are still being worked out, but Sialiano is in touch with local hospice care providers and organizations like Meals on Wheels, who have the capacity and tools to deliver large amounts of food. “It is going to happen. We may have to scale back a little but, no matter what, it will happen,” she says.
As for the dinner’s post-pandemic future, Sialiano is eager to help others, especially fellow REALTORS®, replicate the event in their communities. She has plenty of tips and tricks to share about organizing an intimate gathering for thousands. Her message embodies her unfailing, can-do spirit: “Go with your heart. Start small, reach out to already existing organizations, find a passion.”
Contact Sialiano at firstname.lastname@example.org, and learn about Community Christmas Dinner at the Gathering of Community Facebook page.