Though Anita Ponder moved to Texas a few years ago, her annual Christmas luncheon has become such a well-oiled machine over the last 19 years that she no longer has to be in Macon to make certain it comes off without any glitches.
Thanks to an army of nearly 300 volunteers and plenty of donors providing food and Christmas toys, Ponder said she can handle most of the preparation through phone calls, emails and texts. And when she does require a physical presence, she has volunteers such as Sandra Bryant upon whom to lean.
“She’s my point person when I’m not here,” Ponder said, taking a moment Thursday from her duties at the 19th annual Anita Ponder & Friends Holiday Feast, where members of the community gather at Terminal Station to share a meal, get clothing and toys and even enjoy a haircut -- all for free. “She’s been with me for 10 or 15 years. She’s always handled the kitchen. (Not being there) is not any different with technology the way it is today. ... If I need a physical presence, she’s the first person I go to.”
In 19 years, the event has come a long way since Ponder and her family first began it on a much smaller scale.
Bryant met Ponder in several years ago when she volunteered for Ponder’s mayoral campaign. Though the former Macon City Council president didn’t win, she was already serving the community in another way thanks to her Christmas luncheon. When Bryant learned about it, she wanted to help -- and has been doing it ever since.
“When (Ponder) moved to Dallas, I was asking ‘What are we going to do?’ ’’ Bryant said. “But I’ve been willing to lead when she’s not here. I’ve been doing that for the last three years. I’ve got co-workers, volunteers helping. The people at Hephzibah (Children’s Home) let us use their kitchen and help us prepare the food.”
Ponder said that while many individual people and families sign up to help -- even a family visiting from Italy signed up to help this year -- many community organizations circle the date on the calendar in order to channel their efforts.
“The Beta Club at Westside High School, this is their service project,” she said. “There are two Girl Scout troops who make this their service project. ... As a result, we’ve got groups of volunteers coming in as an organization.”
Many volunteers have specific duties, ranging from distributing clothes to cooking, from making the food to delivering it to folks who may have difficulty making it to Terminal Station.
Moving the event to Terminal Station last year after having it at the Douglass Theatre and Molly’s Cafe on Cherry Street for many years made a big difference, Ponder said. With usually about 1,000 people showing up, in the past volunteers could only serve about 150 at a time while everyone else would have to wait outside, sometimes in the cold and the rain.
Now at Terminal Station, everyone is able to come in and share their meals while listening to music from a DJ -- even dance to it if they so wish.
There are coloring stations set up for children and separate areas set up for haircuts, toys and clothes.
Ponder said the operation is now so smooth that if she’s concerned that there isn’t enough food or toys and only a few days left before the luncheon, she has any in a number of donors she can call in order to get whatever she needs -- a few extra turkeys or bicycles.
“I used to worry if there would be enough food or toys,” she said. “But there’s an amazing amount of generosity from people. I can make calls four or five days out (and get what I need). I know where the heart of people here is; I know who my elves are.”
One change this year is that the luncheon has now partnered with the nonprofit Motivating Youth, headed by former NFL player Roger Jackson, which now serves as the luncheon’s fiscal agent.
Jackson said it’s an easy partnership, since both have the same goal in providing service to Middle Georgia’s youth.
“It’s a great partnership,” he said. “Today, I got a lot of our older kids involved. They came in as volunteers. I wanted to show there that there’s always someone less fortunate. I think it was really eye-opening today about how life goes for some people.”
The event has grown so large that it even has drawn people from out of state. This year, Kevin Patton and Symone Bond left their home in Florida to visit their family in Macon. They went to the luncheon last year and decided to come back.
Bond said the couple has eight children between the two of them and buying gifts can be very expensive.
“All of the kids get five or six gifts to open,” she said. “They have fun. They can dance and they can play.”
Patton said he wasn’t feeling much of the Christmas spirit when he woke up this morning because his car broke down Wednesday night. So he gathered up the family and got to Terminal Station early in the morning. He said he and his stepfather planned to stay behind and help clean up after the event was over as a way of giving something back.
“It’s fun,” he said. “There’s a nice Christmas spirit. When I woke up this morning, I said, ‘Hurry up! I need some Christmas spirit!’ ’’
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.