Annual gathering serves meals and heeping helpings of Christmas spirit
by Jim Boyle
The Elk River Community Christmas Dinner turns 25 this year with the usual spread of more than 2,000 pounds of ham, turkey, chicken and sausage as well as mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, stuffing and just about everything else you could imagine.
There’s also Christmas cookies and pies for dessert and plenty of Christmas cheer from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Elk River American Legion on Christmas Day. This year will be no different, thanks to Roger and Irene Kostreba and an army of volunteers and supporters they have built up in 2 1/2 decades of putting it on.
Planning for it goes on all year, with activity picking up during the last few months of the year in preparation for an intense three-day stretch. That includes one day of prep, the day of the dinner and a day for tear down and clean up.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there is a race to see who gets to the kitchen first. The volunteer help usually starts arriving about 4 a.m. on Christmas Day with Roger Kostreba usually coming in first.
“It’s pretty hard to beat Roger,” said Mike Fox, one of the regular community Christmas dinner brethren. “We try to be beat him, but that’s hard to do. We joke that you have to get up at zero dark thirty, and that was before the movie (“Zero Dark Thirty”) came out.”
Roger Kostreba will be joined by his wife, children and another dozen or more grandchildren at this year’s event. The couple down plays their importance to the success of the dinner, noting it takes 1,000-plus people, if not 2,000 people, to help in one way or another to pull it off.
Kostreba will admit that he hatched the idea for a community Christmas Dinner as a service project for Cub Scouts in 1989. He got the idea from a group in Waite Park that put on a similar dinner.
The Elk River man, so enamoured with the opportunity to reach out to the community in this special way, started lining up support before he even pitched it to Scout’s leadership committee.
The committee heard him out that summer, and the members of the committee suggested he go find a place to host the dinner in and line up some financial support.
Little did they know, he already had done as much. He had the American Legion Hall secured, and $500 worth of financial support had already been pledged. So he walked away with a knowing smile and went about his business of raising more start-up funds. His idea was simple. He went back to the committee when he had about $2,000 in hand, he said.
Preparing for the first-time event was difficult. The group started with only a smattering of volunteers — a pack of about 10 Cub Scouts and their families.
How do you prepare for an event such as this, the Kostrebas and others wondered.
Kostreba took his concerns to the Rev. Frank Ebner, the late St. Andrew’s priest, who took the edge off the event coordinator’s concerns.
“He told me if you serve one person, you’ve done your job,” Kostreba recalled.
The group served 169 meals at the legion that first year. Another 25 were delivered to shut-ins and others.
“That got our foot in the door,” Kostreba said. “We did it that first year, and here we are 25 years later.”
The event quickly became more popular than the Waite Park one that had a four-year head start. The Elk River dinner served twice the number of meals.
There are between 900 and 1,150 meals served each year when counting both meals served at the Legion and those delivered.
The Elk River dinner is specifically designed serve people in need as well as the community at-large. No reservations are needed, making it comfortable for people of varied backgrounds and situations to make their way over on Christmas Day.
Some come because they have no means to prepare a big dinner. Some come because they will be lonely otherwise. Some come to be around an even bigger family than could ever assemble in their home.
The Kostrebas could talk for days about stories of people who have come to the dinner over the years.
One story they like to share is about a group of four women who didn’t know each other but all decided to come after their husbands died. They come every year now, and they always sit together and now they even exchange gifts. One year the Kostrebas gave them gifts, and now they get gifts from the women.
The holiday spirit abounds at the Elk River American Legion on Christmas Day.
One time the dinner unknowingly brought together disgruntled siblings who hadn’t talked in years. Their family arranged the surprise meeting, and it worked.
“They have been friends ever since,” Irene Kostreba said.
One time a lonely semitrailer driver was looking for a place to stop for a Christmas dinner. He saw a sign for the community Christmas dinner and decided to stop for his 30 minute lunch break. He stayed for two hours.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t take it on,” Roger Kostreba said of the service project. “We have had such great fun.”
Those who work it come back year after year because it’s fun and has become tradition. The number of helpers who contribute throughout the year in various ways grow the volunteer list exponentially.
“There are easily more than 1,000,” he said, adjusting his estimate the more he talked about all the people and businesses and organizations that get involved in one fashion or another.
Most people not only continue to help as the years go on, but they also recruit more helpers.
The late Kent Harrell was the meat cutter for the event up until 2011 when he died unexpectedly. He missed only one dinner in all of his years helping. All the other years, he could be counted on to be in the corner of the kitchen cutting upwards of 2,000 pounds of meat that is prepared each year.
“We still miss Kent,” said Carol Heath, who along with her husband Denny have been regular helpers in the kitchen. The Heaths have recruited Mark Schleif, one of Carol’s brothers as well as his daughter, Beth, and her boyfriend, Patrick.
Roger Kostreba raves about the businesses that have supported the dinner over the years. He said he’s especially proud of the longevity and the continued support it has received from some, in spite of business changing hands or shifts in management and leadership.
He points to places like Don’s Bakery as one example of a business that has changed hands more than once and continues to give.
“They have remained faithful,” he said of the transition from Don’s to other owners and current owner, Blue Egg Bakery.
Each year brings new wrinkles.
Last year the Sherburne County Rise Up Riders Saddle Club worked, and this year they raised funds at the Pizza Ranch to donate for the dinner.
Kostreba said that while the dinner got its start as a project for a local Cub Scouts group and has maintained strong support from Elk River Scouting, the event is as its called — a community Christmas dinner.
“This couldn’t happen without the support of people and businesses throughout the community,” he said.
Mike Fox helps line up volunteers to prepare food, including 400 pounds of turkey. He said it’s a fairly easy job, given that most of the people, when called, say, “We were wondering when you’d be calling.
“It’s tradition. It would seem very weird not to be doing some of this stuff during the Christmas season.”
Steve Volna picked up four 25-pound turkeys for the event. One will go on a roaster in his garage, two will be on his Weber grills on his backyard patio and the fourth will go in his family’s oven.
“It has been a lot of fun,” he said. “You get up early, do your thing and it all falls into place.”
Two of the boys who helped as Scouts and one daughter continue to help. That will include Matt Volna, who now lives in the Houston area of Texas. He’ll be home for Christmas and he already told his dad he’ll be on hand at 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve to help with the preparations.
“It’s a family tradition,” Volna said. “I look forward to it every year.”
That’s true of Dan Lofgren’s kids. He has worked the dinner all 24 years and has taken charge of the deliveries for more than the past 15 years. There have been between 333 and 440 the past nine years.
At the dinner, there is singing, Santa and every food imaginable for a Christmas Day dinner.
And the leftovers usually fill about two pickup truck loads and go to Community Aid Elk River, the community’s food shelf.
“That wasn’t a plan,” Roger Kostreba said. “That just happened.”