December 24, 2013
For the past 24 years Bill Bandera and his family have been providing a Christmas day meal for the people of Binghamton. This is the first year they will be opening a second location in Endicott.
Stachia Finch is hard at work. She’s a volunteer helping to prepare the Bandera Christmas dinner.
“I am chopping up celery for the stuffing.”
And that’s no small task. This year’s dinner includes 800 pounds of celery, 650 pounds of onions, 1,100 pounds of potatoes and 110 pounds of butter. And don’t forget the 225 turkeys.
Volunteers spend two weeks chopping, baking and boiling before the dinner is ready to be shared.
Bill Bandera is the man in charge. A fact made clear by the lanyard around his neck with a nametag that reads, “Billy Big Dog Bandera.”
His parents started the dinner a quarter century ago. The original idea was to provide a hot meal for vets. The first year they gathered at the American Legion in Binghamton. Bandera said his parents had always been involved with helping veterans. It was just natural that they would start to cook a Christmas meal for them.
“My mother was a great cook and my dad just about knew everybody in Broome County so they put on a dinner and they fed 69 meals that year.”
The dinner has grown to include anyone in the community who is looking for food or company on Christmas day.
“What I find and what my mom found from the get go is that this meal represents the ability of people from all different places of society to come together and fellowship together, not be lonely.”
It’ll be hard to feel lonely at this year’s dinner. With the expansion into Endicott, Bandera is expecting to serve close to 4,000 meals. Feeding that many people puts a lot of pressure on the volunteers and organizers.
Bandera took over four years ago, after his mother passed away. And in order to meet the new demands, he quickly learned that he had to tweak some of the ways his parents did things.
For example, he used to ask for simple food donations. But he’s learned to ask for money instead so he could buy food in bulk.
“We were forced to look at a situation and say if we don’t modify this we are going to implode. And every year we seem to find an answer to a need that we have.”
Despite the growing pains, Bandera’s proud of the fact that all the food is still homemade. He admits it would be easier to use processed food, but that’s not what his parents wanted for this dinner.
“My hearts desire is to keep the mom and pop feeling, we don’t want to become a production line.”
Back in the kitchen a tough looking man with a moustache and tattoos is slicing onions. He only gives his name as Lou. He says his favorite part is to see the kids on Christmas day.
“If it wasn’t for places like this they may not even have a Christmas meal or a Christmas present.”
Lou’s been volunteering since the first dinner 24 years ago.
“So to watch those kids eat, it’s gratifying. It’s just nice to see. You know, that there are people that care about them.”