First comes the professional family photo, then a fully trimmed turkey dinner, a chance to make crafts with a backdrop of carolers, a visit with Santa Claus and a bag full of hand-selected gifts.
Lawanda Eggleston brought five grandchildren, ages 2 to 14, to the event Wednesday afternoon at Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Minneapolis.
“It’s all for them. It’s truly a blessing,” she said as the grandchildren each got a bag of goodies while sitting on Santa’s lap. “God is good.”
Eggleston is no longer able to work and lives in supportive housing, so bringing the children to the free event means “they can get something from Grandma,” she said.
For the 11th year Wednesday, about 1,200 homeless and lower-income Twin Citians received meals and presents at the event put on by Miracle, a project of the Craftworks Foundation, the charitable arm of the parent company of Rock Bottom Brewery and Old Chicago restaurants.
Buses ferried families from shelters and apartments to the event. They gathered around tables, where volunteers served them a holiday meal. As they waited, another volunteer interviewed the children about their interests and hobbies. The results were run down to the basement by volunteer elves who would then assemble a tailor-made gift bag for each child from piles of toys, including basketballs, board games, dolls, books, Thomas & Friends train sets and even some bikes.
When Gabrielle Stillday’s 3-year-old son, Ezequiel, got a bike, tears welled up in Mom’s eyes as she held her other son, 5-month-old E’Lonzo King. “This made our Christmas,” Stillday said even before her son got the bike. When her housing advocate told her on Monday that she had gotten a ticket to attend, Stillday said, she started to cry.
She also raved about the meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and green bean casserole. “It was so good. We had two servings,” she said.
Her friend Tasheena Thompson attended the event for the third time with her son, Javion, 5. She held the boxed bike as Stillday sat with Santa and her two sons.
The bike required assembly, but Thompson shrugged it off on behalf of her elated friend. “It’s fine,” she said. “It’s better than buying it.”
As he has every year, Michael Regnier celebrated early with his own children so he could spend the entire day coordinating the event. With a radio on his hip and wearing an earpiece, he fielded questions from across the operation.
Over the years, the event has grown to include the photos and craft tables where kids make cards and presents such as bracelets. “We think a lot about this,” he said. “We want them to have the complete experience; that’s part of the fun challenge of it.”
The event requires about 280 volunteers, most of whom work Christmas Day on everything from the coat check to assembling the bags full of toys.
“I’ve got two daughters, and they know this is what I do and that it’s important,” Regnier said.