NEW SHARON, Iowa (AP) — An unexpected thing started to happen on Christmas Day in the small town of New Sharon, where most people know each other and families were thought to be as rooted as the crops in Mahaska County.
Steve and Jo Wiley first noticed it in 1997 while running the town pharmacy. That January, they asked customers how their Christmas went.
“Just another day,” many told them.
The reasons were not always because they didn’t have family or friends or were poor. More people live alone now. Only 13.8 percent of Iowa households in 1950 had one person, but by 2010 the number had grown to 28.4 percent.
Steve and Jo Wiley looked at each other one day in 1997 and said: “We’ve got to do something.”
So they did.
By December of that year, they had planned a free Christmas Day dinner for everyone in town who had no place to go, poor or rich, young or old.
They didn’t set out to help the impoverished. They set out to break a poverty of togetherness. And they still are doing it 16 years later.
People came in droves, more than the Wileys expected, to the United Methodist Church’s family center that first year. The town has only 1,300 residents, but 95 people crowded the decorated tables to eat turkey and all the trimmings. The dinner, held again Tuesday, has grown every year since — to 150 a year ago.
The Wileys enlisted their three children to help, even son Chad who was 15 that first year and had other visions of Christmas morning. Jo made the dinner herself, starting three days in advance.
They didn’t ask for a dime and had only one simple idea in mind.
“It’s so people aren’t lonely,” said Jo, now 60.
Eileen Whitehead was there the first year and every year since. She is 82, lives alone and has children nearby.
“But if they go to the other side of the family, they don’t think I should sit here by myself, which bothers them more than me,” she said.
Now her son Tom, who also lives alone in Urbandale, joins her at the dinner.
Arlene Fox is 97. Her husband died 50 years ago. She has no children but comes to the dinner with a niece, who also lives alone. “It’s a lonesome time,” said the former teacher, “if you are alone.”
Now she spends the days awash in memories, seeing all those former students fill their plates and chatter about old times.
Larry and Rose Van Woerkom help out at the New Sharon community Christmas. They want their children to start their own traditions, to continue with their children. Rose found such joy as gravy-maker that she comes back every year.
Dan and Olganida Gruber help out, too. She works at the pie table, and he washes dishes.
The Wileys’ three children are grown, and now Jo and Steve have grandchildren who help out.
“It’s all they know,” said Jo Wiley of giving to the community on Christmas. “I’ve always wanted to instill that in the kids.”
Bonnie DeJong’s family runs the DeJong Manufacturing plant in town. Her husband, Gregory, died 10 years ago in a helicopter crash.
The Wileys called her. Come, they said. She had nowhere to go, and “it was a time in my life when things were very raw.”
That year she helped serve food in the kitchen and felt the love of Christmas.
“You can offer them money to help feed the community, and they won’t let you. They like to do it on their own,” DeJong said.
“It’s just beautiful. The Wileys are what Christmas is about.”