Vickroy: Kindhearted restaurant owner’s free holiday meal program swells
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy November 15, 2013 7:42PM
Updated: December 18, 2013 6:27AM
Sandi DiGangi’s Christmas is just as chaotic, just as manic, just as nutty as everyone else’s but with one big difference. The fruits of her labors are enjoyed by those who need a holiday hug most: homebound seniors, lonely veterans, down-on-their-luck families with children.
If there ever has been a person who truly embodies the spirit of Christmas, it is DiGangi. Since her first-born child, Gary, died in a house fire in 1995, she has been working tirelessly to relieve the suffering of others.
“Gary loved Christmas,” DiGangi said. “He glowed about Christmas.”
When he was just 4, Gary brought half his toys over to a neighbor’s house because the children there didn’t have any Christmas gifts, DiGangi said.
“That’s the kind of child he was, so giving,” she said.
Gary died a few days after his fifth birthday and ever since, DiGangi says, she has been celebrating his memory by spreading that holiday joy to others. She used to shop yearround for toys and bring them to shelters at the holidays.
Now, each Christmas, she turns her restaurant, Big Pappa’s Gyros in Oak Lawn, into a holiday meal assembly line.
This will be her fourth year recruiting volunteers to help cook, package and deliver dinners to those who otherwise would go without. That first year, she handed out some 700 meals. Last year, more than 1,800 were fed. With the addition of the Oak Lawn Senior Center, the number served this year is looking to be even higher.
“I already have 95 people on my list,” she said. “And that was before I started the list.”
To get a free turkey meal on Christmas Day, DiGangi simply asks that people phone ahead.
“This is what Christmas is supposed to be about,” she said. For her, the holiday has always been about children and seniors and those whose lives need a little brightness.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for seniors and veterans,” she said. “They work so hard all their lives and this little meal means so much to them. It is the least I can do.”
And what a meal it is. Enough turkey, potatoes, stuffing and rolls to last two days. Plus, there’s soup, salad, and pie for dessert.
Last year, Big Pappa’s churned out 72 turkeys. And when supplies ran low on Christmas night, DiGangi pulled chicken breasts and gyros meat from the freezer.
“Everyone who stopped in got something,” she said.
Work begins Dec. 20 when DiGangi starts roasting turkeys, three at a time.
The assembly line is manned by her son, Anthony, daughters Michaline and Nicolette, and assorted neighbors, friends and volunteers from the community.
For five days, they cook, cool, slice and package. Like Santa, they work through Christmas Eve night. At dawn, more volunteers arrive, ready to load up vehicles and make some very special deliveries. In addition to Oak Lawn, they bring meals to homebound people in Hometown, Alsip and Justice.
Among the places they stop is the Airway Trailer Park, about a mile north of the restaurant on Cicero Avenue. There, some 80 percent of the residents are seniors, property manager Wendy Blake said.
“I think what Sandi does is absolutely wonderful,” Blake said. “A lot of the seniors who live here don’t drive so it’s a huge benefit that they deliver the meals.”
The mission is a community effort of epic proportions. Entenmann’s donates bread for the stuffing; Huck Finn restaurant supplies lettuce and white potatoes; the rolls come from Jimmy John’s; and, on Christmas morning, Starbuck’s sets up coffee for volunteers and keeps the urns filled all day long.
People also donate turkeys or offer them at deep discounts.
And then there are the toys. From Thanksgiving to mid-December, people drop in and drop off toys, gift cards, games, all of which will be handed out to families with children who are on the dinner list.
Last year, Ron Fries, of Mancari Chrysler Jeep Dodge in Oak Lawn, drove a sport utility vehicle to Target, loaded it up with $2,000 worth of toys and dropped the trove at Big Pappa’s.
“Last year I was blessed with donations,” DiGangi said. She only had to kick in $2,500 of her own money. This year, she hopes to keep her contribution to $1,000.
“I’m blessed with very generous children. Every year they say, ‘Mom, take the money you would spend on gifts for us and use it for the dinner,’ ” she said.
Among those who donate manpower are firefighters, police and local business people, from all over Oak Lawn and from surrounding towns, including Orland Park and Palos Hills. All give up a portion of their Christmas holiday to help. Many of the volunteers, recognizing the teachable moment, bring their kids along.
Last year, Oak Lawn village president Sandra Bury peeled potatoes, for hours.
“A warm meal that is prepared with love and served from the heart is something that many people all around us do not get to experience,” Bury said. “Caring for each other is what we’re here for and I am so proud of Sandi and her team’s efforts. They make a big impact in Oak Lawn and I wish there were more people like them.”
John Zawaski, founder of the St. Linus Men’s Club and a promoter of Special Olympics, has been helping with his brother Bill since that first holiday meal giveaway. Back then, when the brothers learned of the campaign, they stopped in Big Pappa’s and plunked a turkey down on the counter, DiGangi said.
“They’ve been coming back every year to help,” she said.
DiGangi said everything that is donated gets distributed. Any leftover toys or gifts go to Together We Cope in Tinley Park; any leftover food — rolls, slices of pie — are brought to the local PADS shelter for the homeless. DiGangi said the holiday dinner drive speaks volumes about the local need for help and the local spirit of giving.
“It brings people together,” she said.
She even recruits the eighth-graders from Oak Lawn Hometown Middle School, appealing to their need for community service hours, to come in Christmas night and clean up.
The momentum of it is enough to make her eyes well with tears. But it is the gratitude of the recipients that turn those tears into streams.
Last year, a man came into the store with three little girls. He announced that he’d signed up for two dinners.
“I asked him why only two when he clearly had four in his family,” DiGangi said.
He told her they could share; he didn’t want to take advantage of the kindness.
DiGangi asked if he had gifts for his daughters and the man explained that his wife had died earlier that year of cancer and that all his income went to paying the mortgage and other bills. He said he planned to buy them presents once his income tax refund arrived, she said.
“I loaded him up with four meals and five gifts for each of the kids,” she said.
“When I finished, the kids were smiling from ear to ear and the man was crying. He kept saying he would pay me back,” she said. “I told him he already had.”