By Randi Bjornstad
Hundreds of meals come out of the kitchen every day at the Eugene Mission, but like most places where families and friends gather to eat, dinner’s a little more special on Dec. 25.
A few minutes before the first sitting at 3:30 p.m. Christmas afternoon, mission director Jack Tripp bustled around the kitchen, conferring with chef Clarence Martell to make sure the dinner — baked ham, mashed potatoes, salad, yams with marshmallows and pie à la mode for dessert — would be ready on time.
Tripp’s wife and right hand, Dale, greeted the day’s volunteer food servers, handing out Christmas aprons as cheery as the red print holiday tablecloths that covered row upon row of long tables.
First served were the men who live and work at the nonprofit gospel mission, followed by women and children in residence, then the men who come and go from the homeless shelter, which houses up to 600 people every day and serves 200,000 meals a year.
“We want to make this as much a home as possible, because for many of these people, we become their family,” Jack Tripp said. “On Christmas, we’re all just here to celebrate together.”
But just as it does for many people snug in their own homes, celebration of the Christian world’s happiest holiday often has a bittersweet tinge for the homeless.
For 26-year-old Amanda Nichols, who has lived at the mission since mid-August, the perfect Christmas would be “to see my kids happy and be able to give them the kind of Christmas they deserve.” It’s a dream that’s a long way from happening, “but this place has saved my life,” Nichols said.
“I came here straight from jail, and I’ve been 147 days sober. I’m trying to turn my life around, and for the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful. I can take my problems and tears to the night manager, Eva Parker, when I need help. She has restored my faith.”
Nichols doesn’t gloss over her troubles or her responsibility for them. In a drunken stupor, the mother of three children younger than 10 drove to a Wal-Mart on Aug. 1 — a day when the temperature hit 82 degrees — and left her 2-year-old daughter in the car while she went into the store. She was arrested for reckless endangerment, second-degree child neglect and second-degree criminal mistreatment and spent two weeks in the Lane County Jail.
“I was released from jail to here; my parole officer mandated me to come here, and I am doing well. I’m looking forward to being able to get a job, go back to Lane Community College and make good decisions for my life. But I know this is a day-to-day thing. There are hard days when I feel I’m doing things for no reason. It’s a struggle.”
Nichols, who was adopted as a young child, says alcoholism is a genetic component of her birth family’s makeup and that, “Once I take a drink, it’s all over.”
She regrets that she allowed alcohol to destroy “the gift of being a mom,” and she knows she may never have custody of her children again.
“But as long as I have a stable life and they’re happy and I can see them, I think I can accept that,” Nichols said. She saw her children for a few minutes on Christmas Eve, “and it was overwhelming.” But on Christmas Day, “I’ve tried to tell myself it’s just another day, but then I think what I would like to do with my kids, and I admit I’ve been in a funk a little bit.”
Thankful as they are for shelter, food and the company of others, many residents on the men’s side also “put on a shell” to cover up heartaches in their lives that are more painful at Christmas, Gordon Parco said.
In Parco’s case, Christmas continues to be melancholy because it comes less than two weeks before the anniversary of the death of his beloved partner, Janie, from an overdose of prescription medication “six Christmases ago.”
“I had a lot of good Christmases in my early life, but now it’s different since Janie died,” Parco said. “She was beautiful, and I loved her. I came home that Jan. 5 from work to the trailer where we were living, and I thought she was sleeping, so I didn’t bother her. But when I went to check on her, she was dead. As time passes, it becomes less painful and more tearful, but Christmas is still hard.”
Nonetheless, Parco, who’s lived at the Eugene Mission off and on for eight years, gives the shelter full credit for helping its residents make the best of their lives all-year round. “When you’re hungry and you’re homeless and you need help, it’s awfully good,” he said. “When that happens, it’s home to me.”