Christmas Day will be the 13th year that a free Christmas dinner has been held in Lehigh Acres and everyone in the community is invited to come, go through the serving line, sit down and enjoy themselves and stay for some dessert.
That's the word today from Mike Buff, the coordinator of the project that the Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres puts on every year. The big annual Christmas dinner will begin at 11 a.m. and continue until 2 p.m. at the Parish Hall of St. Raphael's church. Rotarians and volunteers have also been cooking and serving Thanksgiving dinners for years.
Last year, around 500 or so came to the Thanksgiving Dinner, but this past Thanksgiving, Buff said they served 782 meals, a record for sure and one that surprised Buff and his fellow Rotarians because they wanted to be sure they had cooked enough food to serve everyone who came, and they did, Buff said proudly.
A sampling of food from last year’s Christmas dinner hosted by the Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres.
The dinner on Christmas Day is again free like all other dinners over the years that the Rotary Club and its volunteers have prepared.
Buff said that at Christmas, they plan to cook 22 turkeys, eight less than they did for Thanksgiving. But they plan to also cook 12 of the traditional big hams, which is a favorite for many families during the Yule season.
"We're planning for at least 782 meals like Thanksgiving," Buff laughed. "We are going to have enough food; we always do.
"But we're going to start cooking those turkeys and hams at 1 a.m. on Christmas Eve morning, to make sure we get everything done," Buff said.
While they started cooking turkeys on Thanksgiving Eve at 4 a.m., they discovered that it took a little longer this year to cook more turkeys, so Buff said they don't plan to be too late and get to the kitchen early.
As always as stated above, the Christmas dinner is being held in the parish hall of St. Raphael's Catholic Church on Lee Blvd., across from the Lehigh Walmart Superstore.
Volunteers are an important part of making all of this possible, Buff said.
"For that reason, we would ask volunteers to come to the parish hall at around 8 a.m. if they can. Getting there a little earlier will really help us all out a lot," he said.
The Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres is composed of 27 members and Buff said all of them participate in some way to make the holidays dinners special.
"We have a great group of Rotarians and they are interested in our community. That is why we have gone so long and we plan to keep it up," he said.
Buff, Jack Vealey, another member of the club, and others say the dinner is "absolutely free and everyone is welcome." They put special emphasis on inviting people who live alone or people who have no relatives here.
"We want them to find their way to our Christmas dinner," Buff said.
Each year, the number of people who come to the two dinners is increasing and Buff noted that many families come with family members and friends and it has become a holiday tradition to be to be together.
The dinner is free, Buff stressed. But there is a small container off to the side where anyone who wants to donate, may drop in money to help pay for the dinner.
"But that is only for people who can afford to do it," he said. "We know that the times are hard for most people who come and we do not expect them to have to pay, that's a fact," he said.
The whole reason the two holiday dinners were started 13 years ago is due to the fact that it was planned for people who had nowhere to go and very little to eat on the holidays. It was the dream and creation of Lisa Goehle, who was then the executive director of Lehigh Social Services. She is a social worker and saw back then that there were many people who had nowhere to go for a holiday meal.
Some 782 meals, including take-out meals, on Thanksgiving is something that Goehle never imagined back then. When her agency shut down, the Rotary Club of Lehigh Acres took over the dinners. Her husband, Charlie Goehle is a member of Rotary and is often there to help with the cooking.
It is a hard job for those who come in so early on the eve of the holiday to prepare a meal. While they won't admit it, that is a lot of hours for Rotarians to work, beginning cooking so early the day before.
But Buff says it is not a problem when you're doing something you enjoy. He said they want to start early to be sure enough food, not only the turkey and the ham, but the trimmings that go with them, are done.
"Then with the volunteers serving and cleaning up by 2 p.m., we are able to spend Christmas Day at home with our families," Buff said.
While Buff and other Rotarians aren't braggers, many people say without the free dinners, they would have no place to go.
"So tell everyone that come Christmas Day, we're ready to serve up another great dinner. We pile the plates high and we all have fun, and remind people who want to volunteer to help us serve and clean up, to come as early as 8 a.m.," Buff said.
Many teenagers and even younger children come and share their time by serving beverages and desserts.
"It's a festive occasion and our Rotarians enjoy preparing these meals; it gives us a lot of joy to see a big crowd to show up," Buff said.
"And remember, tell them that they can give if they have the money, but for the most part, it is completely free and nobody should feel embarrassed by coming through without giving. That is why the jar is off to the side. It is only there for anyone who wants to donate; but the main purpose, again, is that it is a free Christmas Dinner and we want Lehigh residents to come and enjoy themselves," Buff said.
"It's a great day to celebrate the birth of Christ," Buff said.