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Big Pappa's to prepare big Christmas meals for less fortunate

  • Written by Dermot Connolly

 

Photo by Dermot Connolly

Sandi DiGangi holds one of the hundreds of turkeys she will be preparing for free holiday meals for the 6th Annual “Feed the Needy” Christmas Dinner she will be serving up in her Big Pappa’s Gyros restaurant at 10806 S. Cicero Ave., Oak Lawn, on Christmas Day. She is also collecting toys that will be given to children with the meals.

Big Pappa’s to prepare big meals on Christmas Day for less fortunate

By Dermot Connolly

       A serious health scare earlier this year has not stopped Sandi DiGangi, owner of Big Pappa’s Gyros in Oak Lawn, from going on with her 6th Annual Christmas Dinner to feed the needy and working poor.

       DiGangi said that even a family tragedy, her mother-in-law’s death on Thanksgiving Day, did not prevent her from bringing 90 Thanksgiving meals to homebound seniors in Oak Lawn.

    That was just practice for the big event on Christmas when she expects to feed at least 3,200 families, providing them with a traditional home-cooked holiday meal of turkey and the trimmings, as well as presents for any children in the house.

     That number has grown from the 750 meals served when she and her family began the tradition of serving free holiday meals in the restaurant at 10806 S. Cicero Ave. in 2010.

     They went through 236 turkeys last year.

    DiGangi considered selling her business earlier this year after being misdiagnosed with throat cancer. She was hospitalized twice for several weeks at a time for other health concerns, had two operations and was told she was going to die at one point before she gradually recovered.

    “I’m going to be doing this as long as I am alive,” she said, giving thanks to her children, Tony, 20; Michaline, 17; and Nicolette, 14, for pitching in and never complaining about not having a holiday at home.

      While her health battles did not keep her down, DiGangi acknowledged that both monetary and gift donations are down considerably over previous years. She pointed to a counter lined with gifts, noting that in past years they had a table full by now.

       Last year, in addition to donations, she added $5,000 of her own money.

      While this is her sixth year serving the meals out of her Oak Lawn restaurant, DiGangi and her family have been volunteering at homeless shelters and elsewhere for the past 19 years. She said she does it all in honor of her son, Gary, 5, who died in a fire in 1995.

     “I was able to help those in need,” said DiGangi, who remembers growing up poor herself in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood. “God always blessed me, and this is what Christmas is all about, giving back, especially to the children,” she said.

     The restaurant owner said that 1,300 people have already signed up for the meals, and she is expecting to serve at least as many as they did last year.

   “We stopped counting after 3,200,” she said. Local volunteers, often Oak Lawn police officers, deliver some of the meals to homes in the Oak Lawn area, but she said that in addition to nearby communities such as Chicago, Burbank and Summit, many people come from as far as Orland Park and Park Forest to pick up meals.

 “There will be a line around the block, there always is,” she said, explaining that people are asked to come between noon and 6 p.m., but they often are handing out meals up until 9 p.m.

   “I figure if people come from as far away as Park Forest, they need a meal. People don’t realize, a lot of these people have absolutely nothing. Food is expensive,” she said. “And every child will get at least one gift. I tell them Santa stopped by here with their gifts, because they might not have gotten any at home.”

Monetary donations and unwrapped gifts for children may be dropped off at the restaurant. Donations may also be sent through a GoFundMe site set up for her by a supporter at www.gofundme.com/bigpappasxmas/