Hundreds of pounds of potatoes to be boiled, turkeys and hams galore to be baked, and the heated up kitchen from the stove and ovens - that's all part of the preparations that start Monday night on Christmas Eve - all in preparation for the Lehigh Acres Rotary's Community Free Christmas Dinner, sponsored and served by volunteers, all cooked by Rotarians and friends.
Mike Buff and Jack Vealey, project coordinators of the Christmas Dinner for the Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres, say they will start preparing turkeys and hams on Christmas Eve, and they plan to mash the potatoes and get all that goes with the feast, ready for Christmas day when they expect around 500 people to and eat their holiday meal.
It's a work of joy for the people who help prepare the dinner and in turn, Mike Buff said they are inviting everyone in the community to come and have dinner. It starts at 11 a.m. and continues to 2 p.m. It's being held inside the Parish Hall at St. Raphael Church on Lee Blvd.
PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE CITIZEN
Volunteers mann the line at the Rotary’s Thanksgiving Dinner.
"We're ready to go again, just a month after we served Thanksgiving Dinner to the community. We served around 500 people and we are planning for about the same amount on Christmas Day," Vealey said.
Mike Buff said that the times are definite.
"The dinner begins at 11 a.m. when we open the doors and ends at 2 p.m. At the Thanksgiving Dinner, some people showed up closer to 3 p.m. and there was hardly any food left," Buff said.
"We're all rested up from the free Thanksgiving Dinner and ready to do it again," Buff said.
"The dinner is free to everyone in the community. If you need a hot meal, or if you live alone and have no place to go, you are invited to share Christmas with us.
"Or if you just don't feel like cooking and going through the hassles, you're invited. In fact, everyone in Lehigh is invited, single folks, friends, family group and the like." Buff said.
Vealey, who has been helping for years, said that in addition to turkey, there will be ham and all of the usual Christmas side dishes including holiday desserts.
"We in the Lehigh Rotary enjoy doing this and it is our gift to the community," Vealey said.
The Rotary Club adopted the project around six years ago from Lehigh Acres Social Services. Lisa Goehle, director and founder of the agency, started the project six years prior to that.
Buff said there will be a "wishing well" in the lobby that diners can donate if they want to help out.
"But this is strictly voluntary. The dinner is free to everyone in Lehigh.
It has become a tradition for many families to come together and have dinner and then return home and open Christmas gifts. Many families donate to help Rotarians get ready for next year.
The meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas have become even more popular because of the Great Recession that has hit the country and especially Lehigh Acres.
Volunteer teenagers from local schools and churches, some in the families of Rotarians, have trays of pies and cakes that they will bring to you after you have finished your meal. The parish hall is large with tables covered and outside, there is ample parking. Many from the church walk over after Mass.
Buff urges everyone to come early.
"We are preparing for 500 and hope that will be plenty. But folks shouldn't wait until after 2 because it may be all gone," he said. "We plan to start cleaning up at 2 p.m.
Visitors are counted when they come in and are ushered through a line where a dozen volunteers put food in your plate. Dark meat or light, they will ask. Gravy and potatoes? Enjoy it - words from the long line of servers.
Buff and Vealey thanked those in the community who volunteer and/or donate food and money. They also thanked the church for use of the Parish Hall and for the use of the kitchen each year. Special thanks go out to Publix Supermarkets (Veranda and Lehigh Acres), Winn Dixie Supermarket (Riverdale), Walmart Foundation, Alva Diner, Save A Lot (Homestead Rd. , Lehigh Acres), and all the community volunteers.
"We will be using 20 turkeys at 20 pounds or more each plus 10 hams at 10 pounds or more each, 150 pounds of yams and that amount or more in potatoes,120 pounds, green beans, approximately. 120 pounds. of stuffing and about 20 gallons of gravy, Buff said.
"We start cooking the night before and by the afternoon of the next day, we clean up everything and leave it as we found it," Buff laughed.
"And if you eat with us and want to help clean up, just ask," Buff said. "We'all find a job for you."