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‘It’s very special’: Diners, volunteers find joy at heart of free Christmas meal

Seated in a wheelchair, Susan Blanco said she felt liberated.

About a decade ago, Blanco, 62, of Orchards was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, a disease in which the immune system attacks parts of the body. In Blanco’s case, she suffers from debilitating back pain, which is coupled with bipolar and anxiety disorder.

Holiday meals have always been a major part of Blanco’s family traditions. Over the past several years, her husband Peter Blanco has encouraged his wife to limit her physical activities.

Last year, for the first time, the Blancos attended the annual free Christmas Day meal at WareHouse ’23 in Vancouver. They returned this year and plan to make it a tradition.

“It took away the mental stress of saying, ‘I can no longer do it,’” Susan Blanco said. “I feel free for the first time in 10 years. It’s very special.”

The Blancos said that the joy on the faces of more than 20 volunteers is a major reason they appreciate the meal. When asked why he continues to help organize the event each year, Rich Melnick, with a rhetorical question, offered a similar sentiment.

“Have you looked around? That’s exactly why,” said Melnick, referring to the uplifting atmosphere at the restaurant. “Why wouldn’t you want to do it?”

Melnick, a state Court of Appeals judge, founded the tradition in 1982 with Chuck Chronis, who previously hosted it at his downtown Vancouver bar before it closed. Mark Matthias, who owns WareHouse ’23 and Beaches, started hosting four years ago.

Many volunteers such as Kim Nigg, who previously worked at the Clark County Courthouse with Melnick, have helped for years.

“It’s the people,” Nigg said. “It’s fun to do because every person has a different story.”

The Mattos’s story in Vancouver began earlier this year after moving from California. Josephine Mattos was searching for a holiday meal in the area for herself and several family members, eventually finding the annual tradition at WareHouse ’23.

Sitting at a corner table in the southeast section of the restaurant, the family was enamored with the view of the Columbia River.

“The water, the view, it’s a different environment,” Mattos said.

Anniyah Mattos, 8, took a particular interest in the Interstate 5 Bridge.

“It looks like a roller coaster,” Anniyah said. “You can see it goes down and up, down and up.”

The meal is offered every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Melnick said 750 plates were served on Thanksgiving this year, and he expected slightly fewer than that Wednesday. Diners typically also receive to-go gifts such as scarves, socks, hats, gloves and a few toys for children.

As the Blancos ate their meals, a familiar couple passed through to say hello.

“Santa’s here!” one of the volunteers exclaimed, followed by a round of applause from the diners. Santa Claus, played by Irv Heaton, and Mrs. Claus, played by Kat Weese, then moseyed around the room, both waiving and greeting admirers.

While Susan Blanco says her illnesses are very active right now, she and her husband would like to volunteer at the event sometime down the road. Before then, she hoped to meet and thank the organizers before leaving Wednesday.

“We are so grateful for this gift, and it is a gift,” Susan Blanco said.


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