As holiday travelers made their way through Tyler, most would have never known that under a seemingly ordinary overpass, hundreds of people came together to celebrate Christmas.

With lights strung high across the concrete pillars, dozens of tables and hundreds of volunteers serving meals, the ninth annual Christmas Under the Bridge brought the joy of the holidays to an entire community. There was so shortage of smiles and hugs, and happy children running, playing and making new friends.

The event takes place under the Gentry Parkway bridge, just east of South Broadway Avenue.

Organizer Heidi Eslicker said the event, which is hosted by Hunger for Love, was set to serve nearly 700 meals on Saturday.

The ministry began nearly a decade ago when Eslicker’s son Jason and his friends, Jim Mullicane and Evan Hayes, were moved to help feed the homeless. The ministry grew and hosted the first Christmas Under the Bridge in 2011, and feeds hundreds of people each week.

Volunteer Addison Barnes, a senior at Bullard High School, has been serving Hunger for Love with her family since she was in the sixth grade. Now she and her mother help run the Toy Tent, where children get to meet Santa Claus and receive presents.

“We started with the serving dinners and when it came to Christmas time, Heidi said something to me and my mom and we took it on,” she said. “It’s definitely opened my eyes for people who are less fortunate, and it shows me how I should be more appreciative. Helping people is just amazing.”

Barnes said she would encourage others to volunteer because it’s a life-changing experience. Eslicker said that thanks to local teams of toy collectors throughout the community, every child will get several presents this year. In addition to the toy tent, Jesus Closet also was on hand to help with clothing and gave out stuffed animals.

“You will very much enjoy it,” Barnes said. “People will welcome you with open arms here.”

Eslicker said their mission is to reach out to not just the homeless and marginalized, but to the entire community and help build hope. She said that many people, who at first come just for a meal, become part of the Hunger for Love family and begin to help serve as well.

“Christmas is about the birth of Jesus which offers hope and promise to, let’s face it, a hurting world and it’s about celebrating the hope we have with his birth,” she said. “We’re celebrating with friends and neighbors, bringing community together.”

For more information, visit Hunger For Love on Facebook.

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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