When Jon Sybert told a friend he’d be spending his first Christmas after moving to Tacoma lying around watching football, his buddy wasn’t having it.
Instead, he took Sybert along to volunteer at a Mexican restaurant serving holiday meals to those in need.
That was 1990, and the family restaurant, Casa Garcia, was owned by Rodolfo Garcia, who says he started the Christmas tradition about that same year.
At its height, he said, Casa Garcia, across from Tacoma Community College, served about 1,600 on Christmas Day. Along with the meals came presents for the children, and a feeling Garcia struggles to explain.
“You feel so comfortable around people,” he remembered. “You see you’re helping people, and people are helping you — friends. You feel good when you help someone.”
In 1998, Casa Garcia had to change locations to a smaller building that couldn’t hold the event.
That Christmas, Sybert and two other volunteers stepped up to continue the tradition in a different form.
This will be the 14th year that the nonprofit Friends of the Holidays distributes Christmas dinners to families in need.
The group holds two fundraisers each year to raise money for turkey dinner boxes that its members hand out with the help of local schools and organizations that work with the needy. They expect to give out 450 dinners this year.
Their next fundraiser will be a concert, silent auction and raffle Sunday at The Swiss tavern.
The fresh fruits and vegetables in the Friends of the Holidays boxes are especially impressive, said Mary Lou Macarius, counselor at Foss Elementary School.
“This is probably one of the most nutritious meals they get in the year,” said Macarius, who helps coordinate distribution of the meals to families at the school. “So many of these families are either barely making it or not making it at all.”
The tough economy has changed the event in recent years, Sybert said. The group no longer put desserts in the boxes; the pie bakery that used to supply an entire room of sweets for Casa Garcia went out of business.
That’s been a case for several of the small businesses that used to donate goods for the auction, Sybert said.
The group continued Garcia’s tradition of giving gifts for about five years, but eventually decided to spent that money on the meals instead.
“We stopped doing presents, because the families said it was more important to have the food than to have the toys,” Sybert said.
That let them almost double the number of families they help each year, which has totaled about 4,600 since they took over, he said.
Garcia knows feeding that many people isn’t a small feat, whether it’s seeking donations or cooking the turkey in-house.
“It takes a lot of people to do this job,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to this guy (Sybert). He’s got a big heart, this boy.”