After tense wait, Hilton Head Christmas dinner finds home
Three months ago, Lois Willig was nearly convinced she would be spending Christmas grieving.
For the second time in as many years, organizers of a free community Christmas dinner on Hilton Head Island learned during the summer that there was no place to hold the meal, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year.
Dinner organizers returned last year to Hilton Head's Holiday Inn Resort -- now The Beach House -- after a $5 million renovation forced them into tight quarters at Aunt Chiladas Easy Street Cafe in 2011. Then, the Beach House told organizers in June of plans for further renovations, leaving it without sufficient space to host this year's dinner.
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Willig, who lives in Bluffton, and other volunteers scrambled to find a new location but were having no luck.
The group requires space to seat at least 150, along with a reception area, space for two buffet lines, a commercial kitchen, ample parking and wheelchair accessibility.
Nearly 400 volunteers provided food last year to about 1,000 diners from southern Beaufort County and visitors to the area, Willig said.
"I spent the summer depressed," she said. "We were grasping at straws at that point and were racking our brains at how we could save the dinner."
It was the end of August, and organizers had about a month to find a new venue or pull the plug.
"October 1, that was our burial date," Willig said.
Then she got a phone call from Bob Albright, a parishioner at First Presbyterian Church who had read an Island Packet article about the displaced dinner. It just so happened the church had recently completed a renovation that included a new commercial kitchen and gathering space to host church social functions.
"We had all of the pieces, and they had the bodies and experience to make a good fit," Albright said. "Happily, the powers that be at the church agreed. I just thought it would be a shame for it not to happen if there's a way to keep it going."
Blaine Lotz, chairman of the church's missions ministry, added, "We built all of this space, and we wanted to share it. We didn't just build it for our members; we wanted to share it with the community. And this kind of partnership seemed like a natural."
Whether the church will host next year's community Christmas dinner has yet to be decided.
"We're taking it step by step and will see how it goes," Willig said. "Right now, we're just so thrilled the tradition will continue.
"This dinner means so much to so many who are grieving, homeless, lonely or find the holiday very difficult," she said. "It's just amazing what it means to so many people, and it's a blessing the church will allow us to continue."
Hilton Head Island community Christmas dinner
This year's annual community Christmas dinner on Hilton Head Island will be at First Presbyterian Church, 540 William Hilton Parkway.
Volunteers are needed for the free dinner, which will be from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 25.
Monetary and in-kind donations from people and businesses pay for the dinner. Freewill offerings by guests also help Meals on Wheels and Second Helpings, a local charity that picks up extra food from restaurants and grocery stores to distribute to the needy.
To volunteer or make a dinner reservation, call Lois Willig at 843-304-1086 or 843-705-5725. Donations can be sent to Christmas Day Dinner, P.O. Box 541, Bluffton, SC 29910.
Video: Hilton Head community Christmas dinner finds new home (1:28)
Co-organizer Lois Willig and First Presbyterian Church missions ministry chairman Blaine Lotz discuss preparations for the island's free community Christmas dinner. The church agreed to host the dinner this year after organizers were told this summer its prior location would be unusable due to planned renovations.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.