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Free buffet meal for Free Clinic becomes breakfast of champions

Christmas morning volunteers Rosemary Dusek, Anders (Snowflakes) Nelson and Kristen Nelson help with food preparation in the West Wind kitchen.

No one had a clue what to expect.

Not even the host, West Wind restaurant owner Kevin Pechacek. He guessed perhaps $1,000 would be a decent sum of money to raise.

Pechacek admitted later that predicting might not be his strong suit.

That's because the first-ever free Christmas morning buffet breakfast at the West Wind, River Falls, collected more than $8,000 (and counting) for the non-profit Free Clinic of Pierce & St. Croix Counties.

In fact, before the Christmas buffet even got started, the $1,000 total was surpassed.

"Everyone was pretty much blown away by the outpouring from the community," Pechacek said. "I mean this only shows what a special place River Falls is to live.

"I think the big family atmosphere here for Christmas morning got everyone in the giving spirit. It was packed. The crowd even spilled over to the bar, which was closed. Some people may have given more then they maybe planned because of the togetherness and all the warm feelings."

Pechacek said immediately after the free clinic Christmas buffet was announced, West Wind patrons were showing up to hand in cash and check donations.

Realizing there was no holding back this giving spirit, Pechacek said a sizable, gift-wrapped donation box was placed at the restaurant's entrance.

And so the donating was in full swing even before the Christmas morning buffet.

That Free Clinic gift box was to remain in place through New Year's Eve. That way, Pechacek said, those who wished still could make last-minute, tax-deductible, year-end donations to the Free Clinic.

Julie Gore, Free Clinic fund development coordinator, said it was just a few weeks ago that Pechacek broached the idea of a free Christmas meal with free-will donations.

Pechacek told Gore that customers had often asked why the West Wind -- open every other day of the year -- never opened on Christmas.

All that changed with the free-benefit concept for Christmas 2012.

"We had no idea what to expect," Gore said. "As a volunteer that day, my job was greeting guests as they arrived. The comments and conversations were amazing.

"There were tears of joy and embraces of gratitude all morning.

"It was more than eating a wonderful meal. It was the true sense of being part of a community that cares, a special Christmas morning that many will remember and cherish being part of."

On behalf of the free clinic, Gore thanked Pechacek and the volunteers for their "generous gift of food and time."

More than 500 people turned up and got served breakfast on Christmas morning.

"Everything went very smooth," Gore said. "We had waiting lines after the church crowds came, but everyone enjoyed visiting with each other.

"After the article in the (Journal) last week, Kevin received numerous calls from people volunteering to help. He had to turn down offers.

"Between staff and friends of the West Wind, and other volunteers, the guests were welcomed, seated and served. The buffet meal was fabulous."

Pechacek, who bought about $800-$900 worth of eggs, pancakes, sausage links, potatoes, cinnamon rolls and more for the buffet, said he could simply have written a check for that amount made out to the Free Clinic.

"But instead, we increased the value of that donation by tenfold with the Christmas buffet," he said. "That makes all of this really incredible."

An online Journal reader, after reading about the planned Christmas buffet, responded Dec. 24 with this message:

"The free clinic is a godsend to less fortunate people who don't meet the qualifications for Medicaid. I know a few diabetics who get their medication and follow-ups there. Otherwise, they would be unable to get treatment."