HAMLET — Each year, Poplar Hill Masonic Lodge 331 hosts a free catered Christmas dinner with all the trimmings at Wayman Chapel Faith Center as part of its year-round mission to care for homeless children who attend schools in the county.
“Usually between 200 and 300 people come out to Wayman Chapel,” said Richard Nicholson. “We’ve donated at least $1,000 to the homeless kids of Richmond County. We work through Paulette Douglas, Richmond County Schools’ coordinator for homeless students, and we just want to make sure that they have a good Christmas.”
Asked about the menu, Nicholson said the catered meal serves everything one might expect in a traditional Christmas dinner.
“We plan for up to 300, and we serve turkey, ham and chicken, the works. We get tea and lemonade because it’s cheap,” he said. “It’s a free function. Everyone is welcome. We have door prizes for the adults as well as the teenagers, and toys for the little kids. No child leaves without a gift.”
He said the lodge asks each brother to bring 10 toys, and that any leftover from the dinner are given to Richmond County Schools for homeless children who didn’t make it to the event. Nicholson estimated there are usually about 100 extra toys.
“We started doing this about 20 years ago,” he added. “At the request of Curtis (Ingram), we changed our focus to helping the homeless kids during the Christmas season, because we didn’t know we had this many homeless kids in our school system.”
Nicholson said the dinner at the faith center is fun for families and children.
“We usually get someone to play Santa and maybe one of the elves,” he said. “We might have to find someone who will fit the suit this year. It’s just an event we do every year. It’s part of our calendar.”
Nicholson recalled the first year the lodge sponsored the holiday get-together.
“The main reason we started this dinner was because we know there are so many people in the community that do not have an opportunity to have Christmas dinner,” he said. “When we started out, we had about 50 people. Over the years, it’s grown. Wayman Chapel Faith Center is the only place big enough to have it. We plan to continue it to infinity.”
He said the guest speaker at this year’s dinner will be the Rev. Anthony T. Waymyers, pastor of Grace Temple Fellowship Church in Wallace, South Carolina.
“He is not from here, but is a well-known pastor in the region,” Nicholson said. “And we aren’t having him just to preach, but mostly to deliver a message of inspiration and hope to others during this time.”
The event marks the annual kick-off for the lodge’s fundraising season, which includes several initiatives throughout the year aimed at providing for homeless school children and funding its scholarships.
“We are usually able to raise between $3,000 and $5,000,” Nicholson said. “We focus not only on high school students preparing to go off to college, but also kids who are already in college. They have to meet the criteria, of course, and our standards are high. Our big scholarships generally go to (those with a 4.0 GPA) — but the good thing about it is, every kid who applies is able to get part of our scholarships.”
He said Big Check Tuesday, an event restricted to the lodge brothers, happens once a year.
“If we don’t have enough money for the scholarships, we meet on that day and start writing checks,” Nicholson explained. “Every dollar that we raise goes through the door and out to a kid going to school. We even foot the expenses for our annual golf tournament…at Loch Haven.”
But Nicholson said the main thing “is to raise awareness that we’ve got kids who are going to school, who are trying to make it, and they are really struggling. Evidently, somebody’s doing right by them because they are getting to school. We want to make sure they have what they need to succeed.”
He remembers a story passed along to him that he said deeply touched his heart.
“We had a kid one year — Ms. Douglas said that all she wanted for Christmas was a blanket for her brother.”
The free Christmas dinner begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10 at Wayman Chapel Faith Center, 451 Osborne Road, Hamlet.
For more information, call 910-206-1240.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.