Mandy Smith wanted to get a family photo this year with Santa Claus, but her 3-year-old daughter Arianna was spooked by the jolly old elf on hand Saturday at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.
Luckily, Mrs. Claus proved a suitable compromise, posing with the family for their holiday souvenir, just one of many services offered to thousands of needy families at the Redwood Gospel Mission's annual Christmas Feast.
Smith, a 33-year-old mother of four, and her three youngest children enjoyed a full turkey meal with all the trimmings and picked up a few extra presents compliments of the Salvation Army. Her daughter, Destiny, 11, even got her hair cut.
"We're kind of strapped for money this year," Smith said. "This is a huge help."
Raising a family while on disability from her job at a preschool has been a huge challenge, and Smith said she appreciated the generosity and services being offered.
Children rollicked on the inflatable slide or got their faces painted in Grace Pavilion. Others picked up warm coats, got their feet washed or benefited from free medical tests, compliments of St. Joseph Health System.
Many of those in attendance were Latinos, who stand a 1-in-4 chance of developing diabetes, said Chelene Lopez, manager of the St. Joseph's Healthy Communities program. Nurses make sure to review the results with patients to ensure they understand the risks and are getting the treatment they need, Lopez said.
The event drew more people than expected, said Redwood Gospel Mission Executive Director Jeff Gilman. Around 2 p.m. they were on track to serve about 3,000 meals by the end of the day, he said.
The main change this year was what Gilman called "dinner theater," a play retelling various biblical stories that was performed during the meal served in the Hall of Flowers. Volunteers also handed out small Bibles to anyone interested.
"We're all called to comfort the poor," Gilman said.
While the number of homeless people in the area is fairly well tracked, the number of people living in poverty is harder to define, Gilman said. This year, the mission, which has operated homeless and substance abuse service in Santa Rosa since the early 1960s, gave out 600 boxes of food and child-specific gifts to those in need.
The area's affluence can be both a help and a hindrance for such services, said Redwood Gospel Mission board member Dick Pedersen. It can help generate donations but also drives up housing costs, hitting poorer families hardest, he said.
"There's always more to be done," Pedersen said.
Leora Johnson attended the event with her 5-month-old daughter, Kyla, who had an adorable smile on her face and white flower on her headband. The Santa Rosa native said she has returned to her hometown after living in other places like New York and Alaska and has realized how special a place she comes from.
"There's a sense of community here that I didn't get other places," she said.
You can reach Staff Writer KevinMcCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater.