Stepping into Big Pappa’s Gyros in Oak Lawn is like stepping into a little bit of Christmas, with delectable smells in the background.
The Christmas wonderland features Santa and Mrs. Claus, Frosty the Snowman, dreamy icicle lights and presents under a brightly lit Christmas tree back in the corner.
The presents aren’t there for owners and partners Sandi Digangi and Eddie Memishi or their family members. The gifts will go to children who could use a little Christmas this year.
Keeping up with their tradition once again, Sandi and Eddie also will be serving the needy and the hungry on Christmas Day. A full dinner will be served to the homeless, unemployed, senior citizens and anyone else finding themselves alone and hungry on Christmas Day.
Word has already spread that the annual Christmas Day feast is a go this year. Phones ring off the hook at Big Pappa’s Gyros and Sandi cheerfully takes down people’s names, addresses and how many turkey dinners they need. The turkey dinners are not only picked up at the restaurant, but delivered to those who can’t get out.
Sandi can’t stand seeing anyone hungry, to her it's a sin. She can usually tell who hasn’t had a meal in a while and feeds them with goodies from her restaurant.
One memory haunts her and reinforces the decision to keep feeding people free of charge. She recalls an incident that took place before she bought the Oak Lawn eatery.
“A woman and three children were ahead of me in a restaurant," Digangi said. "They ordered three hot dogs, a fry and one coke. The woman was 37 cents short. They took back a hot dog. I was appalled, but I couldn’t say anything because it wasn’t my restaurant. I had a $20 bill on me, so I gave it to her.”
She took the incident to heart.
“You don’t walk out of here hungry. If I can’t feed someone, that’s a shame,” Sandy said.
Some family members who own restaurants in other nearby suburbs “think I’m out of my mind," Sandi said. “I’d rather be happy and poor.”
“I love seniors!” she added. “My friends are all seniors. I don’t have friends my age. They’re 70 and up.”
It’s this love of older people that also plared a part in keeping the tradition going. She has 15 seniors she calls daily, just to hear their voices and make sure they’re all right.
While she fed 700 people in her first year, this year she expects to double that number. Her retinue of volunteers, including her children Anthony, 17, Michaline, 14, and Nicolette, 11, will return this year.
However, donations of turkeys, toys, gift certificates and cash are still needed. Sandi will be standing by the phone to answer any questions. Individuals can call Big Pappa’s Gyros at (708) 741-4014 to find out more about donations. They can also drop off any donations at the restaurant at 10806 S. Cicero Avenue.
It’s a tiring business feeding that many people and Sandi has an additional challenge this year. She’s fighting cancer.
What started out as cervical cancer has left a mass on her kidneys. The doctors wanted to admit Sandi to the hospital, but she said no, she didn’t have the time. The doctors are keeping an eye on her and she's undergoing chemotherapy treatment. In the meantime she is focused on keeping her diabetes under control. She admits the treatments make her tired.
Family and friends tried to talk Sandi into canceling her Christmas celebration this year and to take her kids somewhere instead. She put it to her children, “Do you want Mom to stay home and have a Christmas meal?” Their response, “Absolutely not. It wouldn’t be you.”
“My kids never complain,” Sandi said. “I’ve tried to raise them to give first and get later."
Sandi and her three children have always spent Christmas Day feeding the poor and hungry, even before Sandi bought the restaurant. They visited homeless shelters and food pantries, trying to ease hunger wherever they saw it. Sandi says the tradition also continues The family will celebrate Christmas a few days afterwards.
So the preparation goes on for the annual Christmas dinner feast at Big Pappa’s Gyros. The phones are ringing like caroling bells. Sandi is talking on the phone and Eddie is in the kitchen preparing food for the day. Customers are walking in and out. It’s just another day feeding the hungry.
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