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Casey Christie / The Californian

Santa and his stack of candy canes observe the activities during Clay's Restaurant Christmas dinner at the Downtown Ministry Center at 18th and O streets.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Kiana Coulter holds her 2-month-old baby, Love-Sahriyah Brown, at Clay's annual Christmas Dinner at the Downtown Ministry Center. She said the dinner was heartwarming.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Gina Guevara says grace before undertaking a large Christmas Dinner at the Downtown Ministry Center, Wednesday, put on by Clay's Restaurant.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Jasmelin Wilson works on her Christmas Dinner, Wednesday, at the Downtown Ministry Center, put on by Clay's Restaurant.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Clay's Christmas Dinner was enjoyed by hundreds at the Downtown Ministry Center Wednesday evening.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Workers serve up a hot Christmas meal in the Downtown Ministry Center Wednesday.

When Kathryn Brown heard that Clay's Restaurant might not have its annual Christmas dinner for the poor this year, she was upset.

She's gone to every dinner since the first 22 years ago. And this year she and her family needed it more than ever. Their house burned down a week before Thanksgiving, and they spent everything they had on a new home.

"There's a lot of needy people out there," Brown said of the importance of the dinner, including her family in the group of needy.

Clay's closed its downtown location at the end of November. When that happened, the owners said they might not be able to continue their tradition of serving Christmas dinner to the needy.

But on Tuesday, they announced that they teamed up with Set Free Ministry to serve food out of the Downtown Ministry Center. And on Wednesday, scores of homeless and underprivileged people turned out for a feast of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and dessert.

"This year's a little more special," said Annie Hutchings, the Clay's owners' daughter.

The Clay's dinners started 22 years ago when Hutchings' family was sitting down for their own dinner, she said. Her father, Victor Romero, pointed out there are plenty of people who don't get to sit down for a hot meal each night. The family should do something to help, he told them, and he charged Hutchings with making it a reality, she said.

But when Clay's downtown location closed, leaving them with one remaining location, Hutchings was content to give the Christmas tradition a rest for one year, she said. But her dad told her that wasn't an option.

And 10 days ago, her neighbor, Mike Salazar, pastor of Set Free, knocked on her door offering to team up to put on the dinner.

"God was knocking on my door saying there's absolutely no excuse not to do it," Hutchings said.

Salazar approached Hutchings because it would be a shame for the tradition to end just because the restaurant closed, he said. And Set Free already serves food to the needy year round, he said.

With Clay's involved, this dinner was a little bigger than what Set Free is used to, Salazar said.

"We're just trying to give back to the community for Christmas," Salazar said. "There's quite a few needy people around."

Gina Guevara came to the dinner with her sister and granddaughter. They came, she said, because they're low on money and didn't have anything else to do Wednesday night.

"It all looks delicious," Guevara said, looking at her plate before digging in. She was most looking forward to eating the vegetables, she said.

Her granddaughter, Jasmelin Wilson, was more interested in the chocolate cake.

"Don't eat dessert first," Guevara had to tell Jasmelin. "Eat your food."

Kiana Coulter, 16, held her 2-month-old daughter, Love-Sahriyah Brown, as she enjoyed the turkey. She came with her mother, Brown.

"It's heartwarming," Coulter said of the meal.

Brown, likewise, was thankful the tradition was able to continue.

"I want to say thank you to the lady who does this every year," Brown said. "She's always a great help."