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James Monroe treats community to feast

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune Pradnya Bergdahl, a volunteer from the Interact Club, serves hot turkey dinners during the Monroe Elementary School’s annual community Christmas Dinner Thursday evening.


With Christmas still a further two weeks away, one school in Madera has decided to get an early jump on the holiday for not only its students, but also for the community at large.

At James Monroe Elementary School, staff and volunteers served a traditional Christmas turkey dinner, and invited the neighborhood, their sixth year in doing so.

“It’s a community dinner, so we invite all the children that go to school here, along with their family members,” said Rafael Perez of the Chicano Correctional Workers Association. “Whether it be their parents, grandparents, siblings- everybody that shows up for dinner, we will try to accommodate them.”

The Chicano Correctional Workers Association, of which Perez is the Madera chapter’s president, volunteered to cook the meals. Their crew, led by retired Valley State Prison cook Jimmy Hayes, spent the better part of Wednesday preparing the food at the Elks Lodge.

“We use their facility to cook all the food,” Hayes said. “We do it (the dinner) every year.”

The food for the event was provided by Camp Fire, and the salad by Sunrise Rotary International in Madera. Further contributions and help for the dinner were given by Jeanne Gordon of Office Depot, Madera Food Bank, Madeline McNeil of the WOHELO Project, and sous chef Bibi Campos.

“The kids are really looking forward to it. They ask when it’s going to be,” said school principal Kimberly Bitter. “Because turkey isn’t something that our families eat — they eat tamales, and so to have a turkey dinner with gravy, and mashed potties, and corn, and cranberry sauce is something that’s brand new to these kids.”

According to Bitter, 98 percent of her students are Hispanic. Bitter has also stated that many of the children at Monroe have grown up with this tradition. Many of the students who were in kindergarten, and first grade, are now in fifth and sixth grade, having taken part in the dinner each year.

“Almost the entire school has experienced it in their lifetime here,” Bitter said. “And it’s the whole community. We invite people around us to come. It’s not just the school.”

Following dinner, younger students were invited to have their pictures taken with Santa, and each student was able to leave with a free book, provided by Camp Fire and the Chicano Correctional Workers.

By the end of the night, Monroe Elementary saw more than 900 people left the school fed, and many brandishing new books to read. It was the result, according to Bitter, of a community effort.

“There’s a lot of people that help us out to put this together,” Bitter said. “It’s amazing.”

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