HAMMOND — About two dozen families received the royal treatment during what some called a Christmas miracle Dec. 25 at Santa Fe Cattle Company in Hammond.
The restaurant’s owners, Tommy Vervaeke and Shane Morrison, invited 24 families — most of whom were recommended by area churches — Christmas night for a free feast that included just about every delicacy from the menu of steaks, fajitas and ribs.
“For some, the holiday season is a time of loneliness or sadness,” Diane Vervaeke said. “I gave a dinner invitation to a lady who told me she would be attending by herself. I asked her several times to invite a friend, but she showed up alone. I made sure she was seated with another family and checked on her throughout dinner. I was glad to see that she really seemed to be enjoying the company.”
It’s the first time the Santa Fe owners have opened their doors to families on Christmas — not for profit, but to provide a place for families in need to go on Christmas and a dining experience some may never have experienced.
For Sheree Glass Morgan, a Hammond resident, the experience was “awesome.”
“They treated me so nicely,” Morgan said. “They showed me hospitality from the moment I walked in that door. They showed me love. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Morgan’s home caught fire on Sept. 6 after it had flooded during Hurricane Isaac. Since then, the disabled mother of several children said times have been tough.
“I’m trying to rebuild my life back one day at a time,” she said.
On Christmas night, Morgan was able to put aside her worries and enjoy the company of her children, she said.
“I was just so grateful,” Morgan said. “2012 has been a tough year for me, but it’s going to get better.”
Morgan was so grateful that she left the last $2 in her pocket to the waitress who served she and her children. She also took home a Bible she received from one of the servers.
The night would not have been possible, however, without the help of dozens of employees who volunteered their time to prepare the food and serve the guests.
Karen Webb, a server at the restaurant, said her reason for volunteering was simple.
“I am part of the Santa Fe family. We’re a team,” Webb said. “They do for me so I’m there for them.”
“I’m fortunate enough to be able to help others out,” she said. “It didn’t cost me anything, just some of my time.”
But what Webb received from the experience were heartfelt thanks and smiles from both youth and adults.
She recalled the smiles from two children who were seated at a table with their mother when they received not just a meal but gifts from Santa.
“The smiles,” Webb recalled. “They were just so excited.”
“She said to me, ‘I just need a hug,’” Webb said about the young girl who was probably about 4 or 5 years old.
Webb said she hugged the girl right back before twirling her around. She did the same for the young girl’s brother.
“For me that was really cool,” Webb said.
Before the night was over, about 80 adults and 68 children between the ages of 1 and 18 years old had walked through the restaurant’s doors and received a nice meal and gifts.
“Everyone has something to give, and this was just a small way for our family to give back — something fun that we could all do together with the help of close friends, other family members and employees of the restaurant,” Tommy Vervaeke said.
“The idea originated with Tommy but our daughter, Hayley, 16, and I quickly jumped on board and had a great time shopping for the kids and wrapping all the presents,” Diane Vervaeke said.
“When approached about the idea, the Santa Fe staff (cooks, waiters, waitresses, and hostess) eagerly volunteered their time,” Tommy Vervaeke said.
Hayley Vervaeke and her friend, Madison Kotara, played elves, handing out presents to the children. It was so exciting to see the smile on the girls’ faces match those of the children receiving the presents, Diane Vervaeke said.
“My daughter told me that the experience gave her a new perspective,” Diane Vervaeke said. “It was such a blessing to serve these families, and I was truly touched by quite a few of them. Their heartfelt smiles and words of appreciation brought tears to my eyes. And then I realized that it was me that was thankful for the opportunity and ability to serve them.”
Family member Stan Levine dressed as Santa, visited with all the children at their tables and also took pictures with those who wanted to sit on his lap by the Christmas tree.
“We all had such a great time serving and visiting with these wonderful families,” Tommy Vervaeke said.