A family tradition

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Penni Egger (from left) and her children, Lauren, Kristen and twins James and Eva (now 24, 22 and 13, respectively), prepare and deliver home-cooked meals to Maui’s unsheltered homeless every year on Christmas Eve.

Sometimes, the smallest acts can have the biggest impact. One Maui family knows this firsthand.

Six years ago, Makawao resident Penni Egger and her four kids, Lauren, Kristen, Eva and James (affectionately known as “Bear”), took a break from their holiday preparations, piled into the family car and headed to the nearest McDonald’s.

“We had seen a video about people who gave food to people living on the street — and they all looked so happy,” Egger explained. “We thought we would try it, so we started out with the McDonald’s Dollar Menu and bought about $20 worth of food, then drove around Kahului handing out hamburgers and fries . . . it was unreal how incredible we felt afterward.”

That incredible feeling is what led them to do another McDonald’s run the following day — and another the day after that.

And that’s when an idea started to percolate.

Penni Egger and her family host a very special Christmas Eve dinner party — one that brightens the holidays for those in need. They deliver home-cooked dinners (like those pictured here) to Maui’s unsheltered homeless.

Egger knew there were outreach services that delivered hot meals to the unsheltered homeless on Christmas Day, but fewer made the rounds on Christmas Eve. “For us, Christmas Eve is a special time when the family always stays home to get food ready for the next day and make cookies,” she said. “We decided that we were going to make dinner and take it to the new friends we had met that week.”

Egger says she wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but it was certainly worth a try. So, on Christmas Eve, she and her kids cooked a spaghetti dinner for 20 people. “We loaded the pot of spaghetti sauce and everything else into the back of our car and went driving around looking for people,” she said. “It was a mess — we got spaghetti sauce everywhere. But we had a great time.”

That evening, a new family tradition was born. The Eggers decided to call it the “Christmas Eve Dinner Party”; the people they serve are their dinner guests.

The following year, the family opted for a not-so-messy meal choice: baked chicken. The year after that, they distributed 60 to-go plates piled high with honey baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans and homemade cookies.

Every year, the menu changes, the number of meals increase, and there are more helping hands (family friends pitch in, too). But Egger says one thing has remained the same: She and her kids look forward to the Christmas Eve Dinner Party all year long. “It is a special time for all of us,” she said.

Egger said the dinner guests aren’t always easy to find, but she makes every effort to locate as many people as possible. Initially, she says some are hesitant, even dubious. “When they realize we just want to hang out and share a meal with them, everything changes,” she said. “There are so many smiles.”

And the family delivers more than home-cooked meals. They also distribute bags filled with toiletries — from toothbrushes to shampoo to bars of soap — and soft fleece blankets. “Some very special elves from my office buy the fuzzy blankets,” Egger said. “We have been wrapping them in ribbons and handing them out with the hot dinners we make for our guests.”

The family is now gearing up for another Christmas Eve Dinner Party — and Egger says they plan to prepare more than 120 meals this time around. “We hope to be able to do a little more every year — more dinners, more blankets,” she said. “And with all of the rain lately, we are hoping to get some reasonable raincoats, too.”

Over the years, Egger has racked up her share of “proud mom” moments. “One by one, I watch these four insanely wonderful kids walk up to people they’ve never met and proudly hand them the dinner they just prepared,” she said. “It has turned into more than us serving dinner to our new friends. It’s also a time for us to be together . . . in the kitchen making the food or packing the car with the dinners.”

Egger says her family will host their Christmas Eve Dinner Party as long as it is needed. “It is such a special night and I get so excited about it,” she said. “I always think I get more from this than anyone else. Watching everyone smiling, laughing, wishing each other a Merry Christmas . . . it’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words.”

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.