For about 1,100 Denver shut-ins, Santa won't drop down the chimney this Christmas. No, he'll walk through the front door bearing the gifts of a hot meal and caring company, courtesy of a special force of two-days-a-year Samaritans who deliver supper for Meals on Wheels each Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Every year, about ninety rolling saints sign up to run the routes of regular Meals volunteers. "The guy who does this five days a week, I'm giving him the day off," said Woody Whilden, a holiday driver for four years. "That's half the payoff for me." The other half is the meaningful experience Whilden himself enjoys. He took on the seasonal work after the death of his father, who was a year-round Meals driver. "It was in memory of him," he explained. "Now I do it because there are people I want to go and check on."

Thankfully for the homebound hungry, there are many like Whilden who are eager to reach out and feed someone over the holiday season. These drivers provide more than meals; they're often the only guest a client has for the holiday. Because of this, holiday routes are shorter, typically three or four stops, and drivers are encouraged to spend fifteen minutes chatting with each beneficiary. (Regular drivers do a sixty-minute route once a week.)

On Thanksgiving, a smiling force of volunteers took over the spacious kitchen of Volunteers of America, which runs Meals on Wheels. Michelle Kramer, volunteer coordinator for Meals, oversaw the operation; it would deliver 1,026 meals that day, 77 of them to shut-ins with AIDS. Each meal included a hearty serving of sliced turkey loaf; a scoop of flavorful stuffing; a dollop of cheese, broccoli and cauliflower casserole; a small slice of spice cake; a fruit-and-gelatin compote; and a half-pint of chilled milk. This was good food.

Almost as good as the seasonal cheer that both thrills and frustrates Kramer. "Sometimes you wish the holiday spirit would last all year," she said. "But every Thanksgiving or Christmas, we get a couple volunteers who stay on all year."

New volunteers Tracy Jorgenson and her eleven-year-old daughter, Corina, got food out to the steady stream of arriving drivers, many of them family units. "For some reason, this year my daughter and I decided we wanted to do something for the people," Jorgenson said. As she loaded crates with food, Corina greeted cars and started them on the drive-through system that matched drivers with their food, maps and instructions. "She's already volunteered us for Christmas," Jorgenson said of her daughter, who tackled the task with an energetic, all-business attitude. "This is fun," Corina said.

As my wife and I headed out on our route, visions of It's a Wonderful Life danced in my head. I pictured lonely seniors greeting me with open arms and moist cheeks, imagined the angel-getting-his-wings bell ringing right out of Frank Capra's Christmas classic. But my images of strolling George Bailey-like into each home were quickly dashed.

"Who is it?" a voice barked. Our first dinner contact then slowly opened her door, accepted two meals and a pair of laminated place mats ("I Love You, I Like You," read one) made by kids at a local elementary school, and gave us a restrained "Thanks." When we later returned after realizing we'd shorted her out of half her order, she turned it down and turned us away.

At another stop, a senior citizen told us, "My daughter asked me over, but I didn't feel good. You eat so much damned food on Thanksgiving, you won't feel better afterward." We smiled, passed him his portion-controlled meal and left, scratching our heads.

According to Lisa Dean, who has been delivering holiday meals for three years, the meal handoff "is not a big Hallmark moment. It's not, 'Sit down, and let me tell you about my life.'"

But Whilden insists that for those few who make you wonder why they've ordered a meal, there are others thrilled with having visitors. "You have to say, 'My fifteen minutes are up; I gotta go,'" he said.

Working our way through our route, we stepped off the elevator in a Denver high-rise and were greeted by Bill. Dressed to the nines, he sat in his wheelchair, filling his doorway with his beaming presence. "I appreciate what you all are doing," he said. At another stop, a woman exclaimed with pleasant surprise, "You deliver on Thanksgiving?" Behind her, two smiling seniors rolled their chairs into the dining room and thanked us for stopping by.

At our last stop, an appreciative granddaughter accepted two meals while a pair of silver-haired adults -- one in a red-and-white Santa hat -- slept in their wheelchairs. Bing Crosby's voice floated from a stereo console, "White Christmas" wafting over the slumbering seniors like the musical incense of some holiday dream.

"This makes you feel good," my ever-astute wife pointed out as we headed home.

During the drive, we counted the rewards we'd gotten from our two-hour donation. I was thankful I could get out of my house, get in my car and go somewhere. I was glad I could drive to my mother-in-law's house to walk among the steaming dishes and warm embraces of the people I know and love -- and love eating meals with, any day of the year. I was grateful I'd skipped the first half of the Redskins vs. Cowboys for this tour of duty.

"I think it's so important to do this," Dean concluded. "My whole family lives in the area. I get to reach out to those who don't have the company of family. It's a great holiday tradition for us."

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Marty Jones