For seven years now, the Lehigh Rotary Club and several volunteers have prepared Thanksgiving dinner and have invited everyone in the community to attend at no cost.
"It's free to everyone. We want to stipulate that. There are many who may not be able to afford a Thanksgiving meal and there are those who are elderly who live alone and won't be preparing a holiday meal. All are invited," said Rotary Chairman of the Dinner Mike Buff.
There is a place where those who attend can donate money if they so wish but nobody who comes is asked to give a dime.
Hundreds of people attend the Rotary Club’s annual Thanksgiving dinners in Lehigh Acres. The serving line and those who came to enjoy Thanksgiving.
The Thanksgiving Dinner will start at 11 a.m. and continued until 2 and again, will be held in the Parish Hall of St. Raphael's Church on Lee Boulevard, across from the Lehigh Super Walmart.
The free Thanksgiving dinner to those in need first began a few years before the Rotary took over sponsorship when Lisa Goehle of the former Lehigh Social Services began the first meals. The dinner grew in attendance and it was then that the Rotary Club decided to take over the cooking and preparation of all that goes with the dinner.
Cooking of the turkeys actually starts at around 4 a.m. on the day before Thanksgiving and those who prepare the 30 turkeys planned this year won't leave the kitchens of the hall until at least 6 p.m. that night. Then they are back with several others in the Rotary Club early in the morning at around 4 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day to heat up everything and prepare for the visitors.
The Rotary Club plans on 30 turkeys weights from 20 pounds and upwards.
The money to pay for the dinner comes from the club as one of its major projects of the year. A free Christmas Dinner comes in December, again at the same place and with the same Rotarians cooking the meal.
Last year, some 500 people turned out for the annual Thanksgiving Dinner and Rotary members guess each year about how many people will be attending so they can prepare enough food.
In addition to the Rotary members, some 65 volunteers also turn out each year to helps serve the meals in a long line. Others serve beverages and still others serve desserts following the meal.
People come and enjoy themselves, often with friends and now it has become a tradition each year for families with friends to attend the annual even, and usually donations are given at the door.
Buff said there were enough funds to get this year's dinner off to a good start.
"But we really want to emphasize that the dinner is for everyone and there is no charge and nobody should feel as if they should give money. Only those who want to may donate and they are much appreciated," he said.
So on Thanksgiving Eve, early in the morning, a handful of people will be in the kitchen of the hall to start the cooking.
They include Jack and Patti Vealey, Mike Buff, Dick Groetchen and Paul
Goehle. There may be a couple of chefs who say they want to help, too, Buff said.
In addition to people in the Lehigh community, many come from Mass at St. Rafael's Church to the hall which is just a short walk away.
St. Raphael's donates the use of its parish hall and the Rotary always makes a donation to the church.
"Turkey and all the trimmings is what we say," Buff continued. "We have all the traditional dishes, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, lots of gravy and green vegetables."
Then when the food runs out at around 2 p.m., volunteers clean up the parish hall, the kitchen and all the pots and pans. The parish hall and kitchen are left as clean as it was when the early morning cooks started putting turkeys in the oven.
Buff said they are expecting at least 500 like last year, but are planning for even more.
Lehigh is a diversified community and Buff said many people from all different backgrounds come to the dinner.
"That's what it is all about," he said. "Getting together with everyone and giving thanks."
How long will the Rotary free dinners continue? Probably as long as there is a Rotary Club and probably as long as there are many volunteers there to help.
More volunteers are always welcome. If you want to help out, the Rotarians say just show up and offer and they will find something you can do to help.