Members of the Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres have for several years served both a free Thanksgiving and Christmas Day dinner to the citizens of Lehigh.
This year, Rotarians and volunteers served 650 meals which set a new record, according to Mike Buff, project coordinator of the annual event which is held in the Parish Hall of the St. Raphael Church on Lee Blvd.
Serving began at 11 a.m., said Jack Vealey, who works with Buff also as a project coordinator. Vealey said that the hustle and bustle started the day before when Rotarians started cooking turkeys and hams, preparing stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, and yams, tea, coffee, water, and plenty of desserts to complete the meal.
PHOTO SPECIAL TO THE CITIZEN
Volunteers at right prepare to serve a free Christmas dinner at last week’s Lehigh Rotary Club free holiday meal.
"There was plenty to be done before the crowds arrived," Vealey said.
Never before have as many people attended a free dinner and Vealey said that make the preparations and help of volunteers worth the enjoyment.
There were very few leftovers. When the doors opened at 11, the lines were already formed. The first lull came at 12:45 p.m. for a very short period of time and the flow picked up and continued until just before the dinner ended.
"No one left hungry. We were happy that they chose to share Christmas with us," said Buff.
They said residents who came were surprised there was no charge.
Buff said one woman came because she didn't have anyone in Lehigh and didn't want to eat alone on Christmas. "One gentleman had recently been released from the hospital and hadn't had time to go grocery shopping before Christmas, and some just wanted a hot meal," Buff continued.
Vealey said some people came for dinner and stayed to help.
"We also noticed an increase of families with children this year. The community dinners are needed more than ever because of the Great Recession that has hit the country and especially Lehigh Acres," Buff said.
And Vealey agreed, noting how much larger this crowd was compared to Thanksgiving and to Christmas of 2011.
Both men said the Rotary Club wanted to thank the people who helped to make it all possible - those in the community that volunteer and donate food and money, the Girl Scot Troop 312 for decorating and setting the tables, St. Raphael's Church for the use of the Parish Hall and for the use of the kitchen each year.
"We want to give special thanks to Publix supermarkets (Veranda and Lehigh),Winn-Dixie supermarkets (Riverdale), Walmart Foundation, the Alva Diner, the Sav-A-Lot supermarket in Lehigh and all the community volunteers," Buff said.
Those who wished to donate money were able to put it in a wishing well, which was inside the lobby away from the table where people registered to get their meal and to be ushered into the hall by volunteers who led them to the serving line where the hot food was dished out.
"This is what Christmas is all about," both men agreed.
"The Rotary intends to keep this tradition up in the years ahead," Buff said.
Two visitors, Jo Lynn Marino and Donovan Anthony, both who have not had a full-time job in more than two years, said it was their first visit to the free dinner. They said they read about the Rotary Christmas Dinner in The Citizen and didn't have food for a Christmas meal.
"It was wonderful. The Rotary Club and all the volunteers and all the people who were there were very friendly. It was a great occasion," Marino said.