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Miracle on Cicero Avenue: Volunteers Feed the Hungry on Christmas

Big Pappa's Gyros serves and delivers 1,840 to local residents in need on Christmas with help of 100 volunteers.

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season is alive and well at Big Pappa’s Gyros in Oak Lawn on Christmas Day.

Owners and partners Sandi Digangi and Eddie Memishi are at the center of controlled chaos of preparing and distributing 1,840 turkey dinners and fixings. Mounds of toys and games, reduced by late morning, are ready to be distributed to the children of families requesting meals.

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One such recipient of Big Pappa’s Gyros’ generosity is former Oak Lawn resident Rosemary, who now resides in Palos Hills. She came to the event last year with a friend and heard about this year’s free dinnerl giveaway yesterday from her brother. She decided to stop in late this morning.

“This is extra special,” says Rosemary. “This shows the true meaning of Christmas.”

The turkey dinner sounds like a lone bit of cheer in Rosemary’s Christmas this year. She’s alone with her dog, her children live out of town and she’s unemployed.

“This represents who these people really are. These people are really here for the right reasons,” she said about Big Pappa’s Gyros, Sandi and Eddie.

Not only thankful for her Christmas dinner, Rosemary is impressed by the gifts for children.

“I can’t believe they are giving away toys. It’s enough you are getting a meal; plus toys? That goes above and beyond,”

One recipient of presents from Santa who sits in his chair inside Big Pappa’s Gyros is Jayea, whose mom, Crystal, picked up two meals.

“It’s quite a blessing," says Crystal who hails from Chicago.

Crystal has a message for Sandi and Eddie.

“Thank you. I appreciate it. You guys are doing a wonderful job.”

The noise level is high with the sound of Christmas carols, voices of volunteers and those picking up meals. The front door hinges are getting the workout of a lifetime, with so many people coming and going.

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Sandi, who is battling a number of health challenges, constantly checks off names in her book as she distributes meals, all the while directing at least 100 volunteers to the tasks at hand.

One such volunteer who hovers over containers of food in the main dining room is 16-year-old Zach Ferraro of Tinley Park.  He heard about the volunteering opportunity from his grandfather, Warren DeVries, who also lives in Tinley Park.

“I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to sleep in on Christmas Day,” Warren says.

Zach, a student at Lincoln Way North High School, says he’s usually an early riser, but admits to sleeping in a bit today. He was up at 7 a.m. and at Big Pappa’s Gyros before 10 a.m. Zach says he will receive service hours from the high school for his volunteer work today.

Next door in an empty storefront, meals were being assembled for delivery. Drivers were in and out, while others stayed and made sure everything was put in bags.

A passerby who pokes his head in the door marvels at the speed, size and scope of the meal preparation assembly line. “It looks like you’re preparing to invade Normandy,” he says aloud. “Well,” replies a cheerful volunteer with a chuckle, “maybe just feeding Normandy.”

Sandi says she expects a slowdown in the number of people walking in the door by 7 p.m. She believes she and her volunteers will serve their last meal at 9 p.m. After being up for two and a half days, Sandi finally will have a chance to celebrate Christmas with her immediate family, and maybe resting up for next year’s marathon of service to grateful men, women and children.

By Joan Hadac

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