By Ethan Colbert
When Shelley Wiler looked into the crowd of people assembled in the Exhibition Hall at the Pike County Fairgrounds on Sunday, she saw a family.
“When we say everybody eats we mean it,” Wiler said. Wiler worked alongside her children, her mother, her husband, her brother, and a small army of volunteers to feed more than 1,250 people at the Third Annual Community Christmas Dinner.
“I absolutely love it,” Wiler said. “I love seeing people come together and to me it doesn’t matter about your religion, your political beliefs, your address, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me if you have $4 million in your bank account or $40 or nothing at all.”
What does matter, Wiler said is helping spread the spirit of Christmas to others who might not be feeling the spirit.
“Christmas should be such a happy time for people, but sometimes it is not,” Wiler said.
More than 150 volunteers spent hours on Friday and Saturday to help prepare the meal.
Then on Sunday, volunteers, including Wiler, started to arrive at the fairgrounds at 6:02 a.m.
Those early-morning volunteers began the laborious task of peeling 650 pounds of potatoes.
They were closely followed by waves of volunteers who arrived and made some last minute preparations for the 64 turkeys that had been carved into 940 pounds of meat, the 110 loaves of bread that were made into stuffing, the 350 pounds of green beans, and the 32 gallons of gravy.
By 12:45 p.m. on Sunday, the dinner had been abuzz with activity for nearly six hours and more than 840 meals had been served.
However, there was one meal that Wiler said she wished could have been among them.
Wiler’s late father, Denny Dunlap, died in 2016 at the age of 69. He has served as the inspiration behind the community feast.
“I really think he would have loved this,” Wiler said. “He loved Christmas and he loved people.”
According to Wiler, her father would have been right among the servers on Sunday if he had been able, and he would not have batted an eye at the prospect of feeding 1,250 people.
“He would be so supportive of this,” Wiler said. “He would have said absolutely, let’s do this. He would not hesitate at all. I think his exact words would be, ‘Give them hell, Shelley.’”
Wiler’s daughter, Bailey Wasson, agreed.
“To him, there was nothing better than letting people know that someone out there cared about them,” Wasson said.
It is for this reason Wasson said that she has worked with community organizations to raise funds for Christmas gifts for children in the Pike County foster care system.
As of Sunday, Wasson said she had raised $2,400.
“A lot of times kids in foster care are torn from the only thing or the only family they have ever known,” Wasson said. “Sometimes that can be right before Christmas. So it is nice to be able to give them a gift or two, which lets them know that someone out there is thinking of them specifically on Christmas morning.”
Wiler said she was proud to see how her daughter and her sons have stepped up to continue their grandfather’s legacy of service unto others.
“He used to tell me all the time that you need to give back to the community,” Wiler said. “You have to give back to the community that supports you.”