The Other Side of Christmas: Volunteers help 'light up' those in need of a meal on Christmas Day
A woman who spends her Christmas Day with the hundreds of people she helps feed on a daily basis throughout the year has described how their faces "light up when they walk through the door".
Caitriona Twomey dedicates seven days a week to Penny Dinners, a centre in Cork city which aims to give everyone who calls a hot, nourishing midday meal.
The group of volunteers serve hundreds of dinners a week to people in need and the majority of them will spend their Christmas Day with the diners.
Caitriona, who is Volunteer Coordinator with the charity, described Penny Dinners as a “friendly place with a bit of banter”.
“We deal with a lot of different faces, lots of the same faces,” she told Independent.ie.
“It is a happy environment, people come to us because they are familiar with us and they’re fed, which is the most important thing.
“They come into a friendly place and there’s a bit of banter in it too, it’s the company.
“People come in and they strike up conversations, you can see them light up when they come through the door.”
The Penny Dinners group was founded during the Famine as a soup kitchen and has been serving hot dinners since.
Every Christmas, they serve a full meal to the many faces of Cork that Caitriona has come to know over the past few decades.
And she is expecting every single one of them to pop in for a festive feast on Christmas Day.
“People who are homeless come in to us, some people who come to us have drink problems, others have prescribed medication problems,” she said.
“The majority of people who come into us are people who are down on their luck with money problems. They’re struggling to pay rent, they’re struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
“They may be on social welfare but sometimes those people can’t get rent allowance,” she continued.
“One dad who comes into us has a job but doesn’t get a lot of money, he eats here and he brings the dinners home to the mum and three kids.
“On the weekends she’ll come in and eat as well.
“Another man comes in, he’s looking after his father and he brings his dinner home to him. He’s in his forties.
“Some people have mental health issues.
“One young man comes back into us three times a day and each time he comes in like it’s his first.
“We give him small amounts of food each time, he’d never be able to manage a full meal every time he comes in so we try not to give him a huge dinner.
“You get to know all these things about people.”
Caitriona will spend most of her Christmas at Penny Dinners, before she heads home to see her family later in the day. But she’s not the only one – the full-time volunteer said the majority of the team make Penny Dinners part of their Christmas.
“Even the volunteers that come in one day a week will pop in at some stage on Christmas morning. They like to come in and greet everyone at Christmas, it’s to show they care,” she said.
“We’ve often had people, volunteers, drive up to us for 20 minutes for a cuppa and head off again.
“It’s become part of people’s Christmas traditions. They come in really happy.
"I cannot thank them enough for all their hard work.”
The group have organised a Christmas Day with a difference this year, with gifts, entertainment and a bit of pampering in store for the diners.
Local business the River Lee Hotel will prepare all the food to take the pressure from the volunteers who will be serving up the food at the centre on Hanover Street.
“The hotel will prepare the food and bring it over and we’ll keep it hot and serve it ourselves here.
“It’s fantastic – they said they would do it so we didn’t have the hassle of coming in first thing on Christmas morning and worrying about the food.
“Pharmacy First Plus chemists have put together care packages for the guests and we’ll have wrapped presents from Santa to give out as well,” Caitriona said.
“This year as well I thought wouldn’t it be lovely to put together a shop with new clothes.
“Growing up, I was always happy and we always had plenty. The excitement of getting new clothes for Christmas was something else. I can just imagine the smell of everything being brand new.
“I thought let’s try and do it this year,” she continued.
“So we have a shop set up, given to us rent-free, where we’ll be bringing diners to get a new outfit.
“Then we have Cork jazz singer Karen Underwood coming in to sing on Christmas Day and we have taxi drivers giving people free lifts and the diners will be able to get their hair done and nails filed before Christmas Day.
“You’ve no idea of the generosity of the people of Cork and further afield.
“We’ve had people leaving gifts in to us and sending us gifts from up and down the country and as far as Jakarta.
“You have just no idea. We wouldn’t be able to keep going if it wasn’t for everybody’s generosity,” she added.
Caitriona said the group are looking forward to moving back into their refurbished premises on Sunday ahead of the festive week.
Celebrity hoteliers John and Francis Brennan have given the charity’s headquarters an overhaul as part of the RTE show ‘At Your Service’.
Francis Brennan describes Caitriona as an ‘amazing woman’ on the upcoming show.
“We’re moving back home on Sunday and we’ll be serving our first dinners on Monday,” Caitriona said.
“We moved out in October when the refurbishments began and we’ll move back into it on Sunday, serving our first dinners on Monday.
“It’s absolutely beautiful, we’re looking forward to going back home.
“There is a noticeboard inside the door and the Brennan brothers have a big sign up on it saying, ‘Welcome Home’.”