The Humble Beginnings of The Salvation Army’s Christmas Family Feast
By: Elizabeth Budelman
MILWAUKEE-- Can you imagine being alone and hungry on Christmas Day? Thanks to Don Rosette, 8,500 Milwaukee County residents don’t have to.
In 1990, Rosette relocated to Milwaukee for a job. He wanted to do something for his new community and noticed Milwaukee lacked something for those in need on Christmas Day. This sparked his idea for “Christmas Family Feast.”
Rosette started the free event in an unfamiliar place knowing absolutely no one from the community. When it came time to find a location, donors and volunteers, he said he just picked up the phone.
“No one said ‘no’ when I asked them to donate,” Rosette said, “Everything just worked out.”
Rosette said his first contact was The Salvation Army of Milwaukee County. He said the organization immediately agreed to help him and the list of sponsors grew from there. Some notable companies that have partnered with the event have been; Sysco, Jennie-O and Sara Lee.
On December 25, 1990, the first Christmas Family Feast was held at The Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena (MECCA). About 3,000 people attended.
Fast forward 28 years, and the event has nearly tripled in attendance. It even had to move to a much larger location because it has become a holiday tradition for thousands more. Christmas Family Feast is now hosted at The Wisconsin Center District, a bigger venue with a full kitchen.
“Christmas Family Feast is the largest feeding program hosted by The Salvation Army in the country on Christmas Day,” said Major Steven Merritt, Divisional Commander for The Salvation Army Wisconsin & Upper Michigan. “We are thankful for Don’s vision, leadership and the hard work of our community relations department to keep the event running year after year.”
The 2017 event drew nearly 8,500 attendees. The Salvation Army of Milwaukee County also provides Christmas meals to shelters and church feeding programs. These programs will pick up pre-plated meals to deliver to their locations. The total amount of people served on Christmas Day was nearly 24,000.
The Christmas meal consists of ham, turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, green beans, dinner rolls, and an assortment of desserts and beverages. The man behind the meal is Chef Bob Ilk. He has been the Head Chef of the program for five years, along with the late Chef Gus Kelly.
Preparations start with shipments of food coming in a week before the event. A few days before the feast, Chef Bob starts the cooking process with help from dozens of volunteers.
Santa wasn’t the only well-known man to participate in the event. Governor Scott Walker and his family have volunteered at the event for the past 16 years!
In total, nearly 1,100 volunteers contributed to Christmas Family Feast. Roles ranged from preparing food in the kitchen, to serving guests, to helping with registration, to providing entertainment.
Just before families leave, they are given a bag of food and age appropriate toys. Families can also pick up vouchers for public transportation back to their homes.
Now that the Christmas season 2017 is over, the staff of The Salvation Army of Milwaukee County starts planning for next year. Planning for the 2018 Christmas Family Feast begins every December 26th!