In the midst of the holiday scramble, the Allan-Feschuk family always makes it a priority to give back to their community.
Whether it's re-watching Elf until you know it by heart, or eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve, every family has their own unique holiday traditions. For the Allan-Feschuk family, it involves having dinner with 2,500 strangers.
For the last 13 years, Sue Allan and her sons, Will and James, have hung decorations and washed dishes at Operation Big Turkey, a volunteer-run event that feeds 2,500 people in Ottawa every year on Christmas Eve.
"The thing about Operation Big Turkey is you get out and are part of a community. Anyone can go to the dinners," says Sue, a writer and editor at WE. "Their whole thing is, maybe you're alone on Christmas Eve, and you can just go and share a meal. You get to be part of something."
Operation Big Turkey was founded in 2004 by Chris Knight, an Ottawa-area writer and producer. He was feeling down around the holidays and decided to lift his spirits by doing something positive. He gathered a group of friends, organized a free community dinner at a local golf club and paid for the event himself. Flash forward 14 years, and OBT has evolved into 200 volunteers at four community centres across Ottawa. The food is now donated by sponsors and prepared at Algonquin College's School of Hospitality and Tourism.
Operation Big Turkey has been called a "giant communal hug," and volunteers are encouraged to sit and have a meal as well. From seniors living alone to new Canadians to the homeless, anyone can attend a dinner. The focus is as much on companionship as it is on the food.
"It's nice to spend time with people on Christmas who would instead be spending it alone," says James, 19, a second-year biology student at Queen's University.
The fact that the dinner is held on Christmas Eve is a draw for Sue. At a time when everyone is so focused on getting those final gifts and putting all the finishing touches on their holiday decorations, she and her family have something that takes them out of that frenzy of the season and makes them think about doing something for someone else.
Volunteering at OBT has become such a tradition for the Allan-Feschuk clan that they plan their other holiday events and family visits around it.
"Out-of-town family know never to expect us before December 25," says Sue.
And if they show up early, they're put to work too.
One year, when her parents came to visit, Sue's dad helped Will at the drink table, and her mom served dinner with James. Another year, 15 members of her husband's family split up to lend a hand at different centres across the city.
Over the years, James and Will have set up tables and chairs, hung festive decorations, served food and washed countless dishes. Sue has taken on more of a leadership role over the past five years, and helps to oversee the event at one of the community centres and ensure everything runs smoothly.
Sue was inspired to start volunteering with her family after she helped the co-founders of WE, Craig and Marc Kielburger, write their book The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care and Contribute.
"One of the biggest takeaways was that parents need to lead by example. It's really important that kids see you, because they are always watching," she says. "It moved me to take my kids along when I'm volunteering. I pretty much grab them and take them anywhere. They're not always happy about that, but they're always better for it."
While James admits that volunteering at OBT may have been a bit more involuntary at the start, it's now something that he and his brother look forward to. Last year, they even stayed late after the event to play basketball with some of the kids who'd attended the dinner.
"Oftentimes I'll have friends ask to come do it with me, just because they have a good time too," says James. "It's fun. It doesn't really feel like volunteering."
Sue says she is grateful to be able to give back around the holiday season.
"The season is so focused on buying and spending. Operation Big Turkey really takes the emphasis off gifts and puts it on giving," she says. "I like that our main concern is 'Do we have 500 forks for the people who are coming?' rather than 'Did I get that one last present?'"
In addition to their work at Operation Big Turkey, Sue and her sons have sorted donations at food banks, filled hampers with groceries and gifts for underserved families, and handed out bags at local grocery stores for shoppers to fill with donations for the food bank.
Sue hopes that instilling volunteerism at a young age has inspired her kids to lend a hand when they see an opportunity to make a difference, no matter the time of year. James agrees; getting in the habit of giving back when he was young led him to accept volunteer opportunities when he arrived at university.
"As cheesy as it sounds, it feels good to do some good," says Will.
For more ideas on how to give back, check out WE Stories.