UPPER EAST SIDE — For New Yorkers like Dallas O'Dell, a college junior on break from Cornell, the spirit of Christmas means more than sitting around opening presents.
She spent Thursday morning with her parents, brother and boyfriend — and several other volunteers — at the Stanley M. Isaacs Neighborhood Center on East 93rd Street, packing boxes with Cornish hen, roasted potatoes, kale with mushrooms and key lime pie before delivering the food to the elderly through the Citymeals-on-Wheels program.
"It's become a tradition," said O'Dell, 20, whose family started volunteering together for the meal delivery program five years ago. "For me, I don't like everyone just talking about what you get for Christmas. This gives it that meaning that a lot of people lose about the holiday."
Citymeals was on track to provide more than 8,700 holiday meals to homebound New Yorkers and senior centers, said the organization's executive director, Beth Shapiro. The program — whose $19 million budget relies almost entirely on private donors — provides meals on weekends, holidays and in emergencies to the city's frail and aged, who are chronically disabled by conditions like vision loss, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease.
"You just see their faces light up when you go to the door," said Melissa O'Dell, a Tudor City resident who prepped meals beside her daughter.
She got her children involved with the effort for personal reasons: When she was a child, her grandmother, who lived on Long Beach Island, N.J., received deliveries from Meals-on-Wheels, a similar program that runs on weekdays.
"It brought a sense of comfort to my parents knowing that my grandmother had a hot meal and a visit from someone every day," O'Dell said.
Paying it forward has become the most meaningful way for O'Dell to celebrate the holiday.
"We don't go to either family," she said of her and her husband's relatives. "We opt out. We dedicate ourselves to this and then go home and have Chinese food."
The family's first stop for deliveries included a legally blind retired public school teacher, who at 68 years old was one of the younger participants in the program. More than 60 percent of those who receive Citymeals are over 80, the organization said.
"It makes my life easier," said Carol, who declined to give her last name. Ever since someone left a white napkin on her stove two years ago that she couldn't see when she put her stove on, she hasn't done a lot of cooking.
Jeffrey Stewart, the food services manager at the Isaacs Center, couldn't have been happier that he was preparing meals on Christmas.
"I was raised by my grandmother," said Stewart, who hails from Tobago. "She instilled in me the idea to love and to be loving and to give love in times like this. She always said to remember to give back to the unfortunate who aren't able to prepare a meal for themselves."
After Stewart wrapped up in the kitchen at the community center at 2 p.m., he planned to head to his cousin's house in East Flatbush to help her finish preparing a feast of chicken, goat, pies and fruit, and then join her and her five children in handing out more than 100 meals to the homeless in front of the Bedford-Atlantic Armory Men's Shelter in Crown Heights.
"It's something we do on our own. We don't get funding to do it," said Stewart, who has been handing out free Christmas meals for 25 years. "Christmas to me, means love, joy, peace, happiness and all the good things that come with that."