Catholic Charities Christmas Cheer

Catholic Charities Christmas Cheer

Brian Ramos

Chef Jun Lao of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada poses for a photo at the organization’s downtown Las Vegas campus, Wednesday, December 21, 2022.

Chef Jun Lao was summoned from the kitchen to the dining facility at Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada by one of the people eating the meal he helped prepare.

Lao was initially nervous that the person was going to complain about the quality of the food. Instead, they raved about its taste and compared it to a meal from their childhood.

They told him he prepared the food with love, a meaningful compliment for the longtime chef of the downtown Las Vegas campus serving the valley’s homeless population.

“They were crying,” he said. “It reminded them of something their grandmother made.”

The meal served today on Christmas is one of the most significant of the year for the staff at Catholic Charities, whose dining area is decorated for the season and waiting to welcome some of the area’s homeless for the free meal.

It’s more than the meal, officials stress. It’s also about providing those in need a few hours of holiday cheer and comfort, including Christmas songs on the loud speakers and care-package gifts.

“It’s the experience of joy and love during the holidays,” said Lisa Robinson, vice president of operations at Catholic Charities. “We can be their family for the day.”

Lao’s menu this Christmas has a different twist — a traditional Latin Christmas celebration. Catholic Charities in past years has served a Christmas meal of American favorites like ham with all the fixings or roast beef.

The menu today: Beef tamales, chicken enchiladas, charro beans, Mexican pasta salad and hot chocolate.

“A day like Christmas is special to all of us,” Lao said. “It’s a privilege to make a Christmas meal for someone. This is the first time we’ve tried something different and we are excited to see how it goes.”

Lao started working in kitchens as a teenager in Southern California, doing everything from banquets at a country club, to casual Mexican food and fine dining. He moved to Las Vegas during the recession in the late 2000s and quickly found his niche at Catholic Charities.

He immediately felt his work had more purpose. There’s a certain sense of pride when someone in need is eating your food as likely their lone meal of the day, he said.

Lao a few years ago was recruited to work in a restaurant on the Strip. The offer was attractive and better paying, he said.

“But it’s not about the money,” said Lao, whose kitchen also feeds 2,5000 seniors each week in the Meals on Wheels program. “It’s doing something that makes you happy. This isn’t some average job (in the industry). This is helping provide for someone.”

That mentality echoes throughout Catholic Charities, which serves anywhere from 300 to 900 people daily for its free offering, Robinson said. They are preparing 650 Christmas meals, with service starting at 10 a.m.

The Christmas feast is so popular that there’s a waiting list of volunteer groups to assist, including church missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who where at the facility Wednesday to piece together care packages with items like instant oatmeal and crackers.

Visitors will go through the buffet line to get their meal, but unlike other days, a volunteer hand delivers the dessert — an important gesture as part of the holiday. One of the goals of the day is providing a dignified experience to the visitor, officials said.

Social workers from the group will be on site for those needing aid.

“People from all walks of life come through our doors, and from many backgrounds,” Robinson said. “They are very grateful. They are trying to have a great holiday, too.”

Those many backgrounds were considered in coming up with the menu. Next year, Lao said they’ll try the Christmas traditions of another culture, hoping to again bring a sense of nostalgia to a visitor in need of a warm holiday meal.

This meal, he says, isn’t like some of the 800,000 the kitchen annually produces. The holidays are special and he can’t wait to help usher in the Christmas cheer.

“It makes me happy to see people enjoy the food on Christmas,” he said. “I’m excited to see if they like (the Latin-themed dishes).”

Catholic Charities is always looking for community aid, whether that’s food or clothing donations, or monetary support. Visit to help.

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Mike McNamara

Mike McNamara

A Las Vegas Realtor since 2008. Mike has a wide range of knowledge around all things Las Vegas.

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