MERCED — Carolyn Griffin stood outside Merced's American Legion Hall on Monday, seeking a hot meal and the comfort of spending Christmas in the company of caring people.
Griffin, 24, said 2012 was a tough year, financially. But she put those concerns aside Monday, if only for a brief moment, to celebrate the joy of Christmas.
Currently unemployed, Griffin sat with her five cousins at Monday's meal. "We heard about it through a friend and we wanted to get out of the house and get in the holiday spirit." she said.
She was one of more than 1,500 people who lined up outside the hall on Monday for the Merced County Rescue Mission's annual Christmas feed.
As they enjoyed a ham dinner with mashed potatoes, salad and vegetables, many families took a moment to reflect on the season and appreciate each other. "You feel the love in the air," said Elaine Urias, 34, who brought her husband and three children. "It's really good to see the community come together and know that we can bring the kids here and be safe."
"I want to see Santa!" Angel Urias, 8, said excitedly as he sat next to his mother.
Urias told the kids they'd soon receive a toy from Santa Claus, who sat in the next room.
Regardless of their financial circumstances, the family said they felt welcome sitting among the row of strangers. "I feel like there's no judgment here," Urias' husband, Robert, said.
For many, the down economy contributed to a tougher holiday season, making it difficult to afford a holiday meal. New unemployment numbers for Merced County showed the jobless rate spiked to 15.7 percent from 14.6 percent, with a loss of 2,100 farm jobs.
For others, the feeling of community is what brought them to the annual feed.
"It shows unity," said Jennifer Castellanos, 33. She said her family came to volunteer to serve food, but were told they could sit down and eat a meal.
Castellanos' fiance said it gave him an opportunity to bond with his family.
"I wanted to spend time with the family and I knew my son would enjoy it," said Ruben Jimenez, 31.
The mission received about 400 hams for the event, but cooked only 200. The rest will be used to feed homeless people for the rest of the year.
Organizers of the feed said they considered the event a success, and will soon begin planning the next one. "We start preparing for next year after today is over," said Martin Rose, Rescue Mission program director. "Many people know we're here, but many still don't. So we talk about how we can reach more people and help them understand we're here."
Rose said the feed wouldn't be possible without the mission's board of directors and volunteers -- nearly 75 of them -- who donated their time on Christmas Eve. "It's the people of Merced -- their generosity is incredible," Rose said.
People such as Edward Mackey, 26, who said he wanted to volunteer for the Thanksgiving feed, but couldn't make it.
Standing in line Monday morning, handing out dinner rolls, Mackey said he volunteered at the feed because he wants to give back as much as possible.
"Sometimes we forget where we come from," Mackey, a mixed-martial-arts fighter, said. "I've always wanted to do something for the community. I'm trying to stay humble and follow my dream."
Jonathan Vazquez, 20, from Atwater, said this was his first year volunteering. He was surprised by the number of children he saw. "There's a lot of people in need," Vazquez said. "I know some that need help, but seeing the kids in need really got to me."
The Merced County Rescue Mission's manager David Nesbitt said seeing the children is also the most difficult part for him.
"It makes me sad to see children in need," Nesbitt said. "But when we pass out the toys and you see the children laugh and run around, it's a good moment -- it makes everything I do worthwhile."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.