Some 600 people showed up on Christmas Day at the parish hall of St. Raphael's Catholic Church, for the Rotary Club's latest free Christmas dinner, open to everyone in Lehigh.
"We were well pleased. We cooked enough food and that made up happy," Buff said. "Asked what would they have done if they had run out of food and Buff jokingly said the Rotary "would have to take them to Burger King."
But he would have been out of luck since the fast food restaurants were closed on Christmas Day.
Hundreds attend the rotary Club’s annual Christmas Dinner every year.
This year it appears that the Rotary Club and volunteers served a hundred more than last Christmas and each year, the crowd grows as the word gets around.
Doors opened at 11 a.m. and the dinner continued to 2 p.m. and at least 50 or more volunteers showed up to help out the Rotary Club serve up turkey and ham and all the trimmings that traditionally go with a Christmas meal. Rotarians started early on Christmas Eve Day cooking the turkeys and hams and other foods. And they showed up early on Christmas morning to get the food warmed up again and prepare it for the 30-foot serving line where volunteers spooned food into your plate.
When the doors opened, a line was waiting to come in and greets Debbie Murphy and Lenore Maffetore who welcomed the people and guided them into the dining room. One of the women was holding a hand counting clicker so they would know how many diners they had served by the end of the day.
Without volunteers, Buff said they couldn't pull off such an event. The Rotary Club has been doing this for at least 13 years now and there are no plans to stop. The club hosts two dinners during the holidays Thanksgiving and again on Christmas. Of the two, the Thanksgiving Dinners draws the largest crowd with 782 dinners served this past Thanksgiving.
Buff said traditionally, they know that fewer people come to the Christmas Dinner because so many people are invited by friends and family for dinner. But to be sure they had enough food, they took no chances. And Buff and other Rotarians were right on when it came to how much food was needed. They're getting to be experts at it, having served the free dinners for so many years.
"At first they started trickling in," said one of the greeters, and then by noon, the line was so long that it stretched all the way to the door to the parish hall and outside and by noon, 200 people had entered the dining hall. Another 400 would show up before the food was gone.
While the dinner was free to everyone in Lehigh, some donated money as they came into the entrance of the parish hall and the money is put away to help buy turkeys and hams and other foods for the following year. If there is not enough, the Rotary is able to dig into its pockets and come up with enough money to pay for more food.
The parish hall of the St. Raphael's Church is where Bingo is played weekly but it would be a surprise if as many people come as do during the holiday meals.
There were so many people in the parish hall by 12:30 p.m. that it was almost difficult to walk around without running into someone who was searching for a table or run into a volunteer who was serving coffee and tea and others, many young people, who were serving desserts throughout the hall.
Buff said the Rotary Club is happy to continue the dinners and sees no end to preparing dinners each year during the last holidays in November and December.
Buff and his other Rotarians have done such a good job that they have a job for everyone who volunteers from the time the food is scooped up and put on the serving line until the last dish is washed, and they use real plates, except for those who take carry-outs.
In the beginning, it was John Dantiago, Lucy Allison and her son, Jeremy who were scrubbing pots and pans. The cleaning up task continued throughout the day until all was clean and the hall was in the same condition as it was when the Rotarians took over on Christmas Eve.
The hall is provided to the Rotary Club and people of Lehigh without charge.
Many people, who were attending Christmas Mass at the adjacent church, came to the dinner afterwards.
Harvey Swartz and his wife, Jane, said they come to Florida for the winter season and always come to the Rotary Dinner.
"We have a house here and we wouldn't miss one of the Rotary's dinners because they serve such great food," Jane Swartz said. They are from Missouri.
Carla Elslager of Lehigh Acres also complimented the Rotary.
"It's the best and everyone seems so happy. You can come here alone and see someone you know. It's my third year," she said.
Many children of the volunteers were also on hand to help out and they did a great job. Little Samuel Ranirez, who is 5, and lives in Lehigh, was offering cake and pie desserts to diners with a big smile.
Daniel Fredell and his wife, Mary Jane, of Lehigh Acres, said the food "was fantastic and they come back year after year and for good reason.
"It's our 36th wedding anniversary on Christmas Day and this is the best place to spend it and celebrate," Mrs. Fredell said.
One person who deserves a lot of credit at the Rotary Dinners is Casper Miceli. He is the official traffic control person and he guides people to the serving line. Without this senior citizen's help, there would be mass confusion in the large dining room. He has been doing this as a volunteer for almost all of the 13 y ears that the Rotary Club has been serving dinners.
Coordinator for the dinner is Mike Buff who was wearing a funny hat most of the day. He posed for pictures at the beginning of the dinner with Debra Schuman, who is the president of the club and also a willing and happy volunteer.
Are they going to this again next Thanksgiving and Christmas, Buff was asked.
"You bet we are. It's a sure thing," he laughed.