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Volunteers help feed people in need at Good News at Noon
The dining room of Good News at Noon filled up Tuesday for the annual Christmas lunch. - photo by Tom Reed

On a dreary Christmas day, a community gathered at noon to serve those most in need.

Gene Beckstein has run the Good News at Noon homeless shelter for 24 years, and it’s Christmas dinner is a tradition. But it’s not unusual to see Good News serving people in need.

“We’re always open. Never closed,” he said. “You come by at 2 a.m., drunk, we’ll take you in. Only place open day and night.”

Although the shelter serves all days and all hours, the Christmas meal is visibly different.

“This day is different. You can just tell by the atmosphere that it’s special,” he said.

Children gushed to each about their new presents — a pink and white iPod, new clothes, new toys.

Some familiar faces caught up with each other. Others quietly ate their meal alone.

One attendee spread the word that volunteers were giving out socks.

“You need a pair of socks?” one man asked another.

He jumped up from his seat. “I could always use another pair of socks,” he said.

After the meal, children came forward to read prayers.

The Times caught up with Willie Alexander, who was previously interviewed at the shelter on Thanksgiving 2011.
Alexander was in prison for 27 years.

He has stayed at the shelter for five years, volunteering his time and advice.

Although he had just gotten out of the hospital, he said he was not weak enough to miss the meal.

“I wouldn’t miss this for nothing,” he said.

Giving back on Christmas means a lot for him.

“God worked a miracle in me for allowing me to receive my freedom again, and now I work for God,” he said.

The experience is just as rewarding for volunteers as it is for those receiving the food.

Bobbie Woodruff is a volunteer from St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville.

Dressed in her brightest holiday red, she sat with the rows of volunteers against the wall as kitchen workers called numbers and served meals.

“To me, it just feels good knowing I’m doing something,” she said. “One Christmas I just decided, let me give something back.”

Woodruff has lived in Gainesville since she was 16, but her family is from Elberton, GA, outside of Athens.

“I go home for Thanksgiving, but not for Christmas, so I give this day back for God,” she said.

“I enjoy just giving,” she added with a smile.

Woodruff volunteers primarily with Veteran Outreach at her church, she said.

The large presence of veterans was evident at the meal. Many men donned their military fatigues.

Beckstein, who celebrated his 90th birthday in July, is a veteran of World War II.

He said overall the number of attendees hasn’t shrunk, although some people observed that turnout was dampened by the rain.

“There are a hundred people just here across the hall, people receiving meals and volunteers,” he said. “There are people here from North Carolina and South Carolina, people from all over.”

Alexander couldn’t help but gush about Beckstein, or “Mr. B,” given the chance.

“I just love him,” he said. “He taught me love.”

For the men and women gathered at Good News at Noon, while it may have been a wet day, it was a Merry Christmas.