For 24 years, community Christmas dinner feeding Ocean City

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Peaches Lukens retires from helm of volunteer effort

OCEAN CITY — Offering hand-carved turkey with all the fixings, baked ham, fresh vegetables and a variety of desserts, the 24th annual community Christmas dinner on Dec. 25 always attracts a large crowd.

Last year, post-Hurricane Sandy, more than 1,000 people joined the philanthropic family feast. All are welcome and no reservations are required.

This year, there will be one major change. The event will go on without Peaches Lukens, the local volunteer who created the massive philanthropic offering in 1991.

Lukens is going to take care of her grandson, Max Martinez, while her daughter, Halley Martinez, and her husband, Mike Lukens, assist the volunteers.

“He’s at the stage that I want to be Grandmom,” Lukens said of her grandson. “I want to focus on my own personal Advent. It’s a beautiful, quiet time for me to reflect.”

Lukens said she has split her dinner duties up amongst half a dozen people.
“I trusted God that once I decided to stay with Max, that others would step up and they did,” she said.

The event grew out of a bloated Christmas in the Lukens home in 1989. Halley was her family’s first grandchild, and the gifts were overwhelming, she said. Disillusioned by the overabundance, Lukens felt the spirit of Christmas was lost and said “Never again.”

The next year, she talked to former recreation director Mike Allegretto about using the Youth Center for a community dinner, to put the focus on helping others. It began with about 200 people and grew from there.

Lukens and her volunteers rolled microwaves, powered by extension cords, out to the football field to warm the vegetables. Some volunteers manned the fuse box in the aging facility, replacing fuses by the minute to get the meal off the ground.

The dinner was held for a few years at the Baptist church before moving to St. Peter’s United Methodist Church.

Lukens said the concept is simple. Participants need only show up at St. Peter’s on Christmas Day.

For those involved, the Christmas Day meal and fellowship surrounding it is much more about the feeding the soul than feeding the hungry. In a tough economy, the dinner offers a respite, Lukens said.

“A lot of people are working, but can’t afford to travel to be with family. And a lot of people are out of work,” she said.

Lukens said circumstances sometimes make it hard for families to get together. The dinner is not just for those who can’t afford a meal; it’s a dinner for everyone who might be in need, even if that need is just to be with others.

“We don’t want anyone to be sad or lonely,” she said.

Many of the volunteers, she said, participate because it helps them forget their own troubles.

Each year, the community Christmas dinner has grown. With the attitude of gratitude and “the more the merrier,” they have maintained an open-door policy.

“We offer an opportunity to come and celebrate Christmas, the birth of Christ. It’s a great big party for Jesus,” she said. “The dinner is uplifting for so many reasons.”

A dinner of this magnitude requires a lot of help, Lukens said.

“We’ve almost had too much help, and that’s a good problem to have,” she said, adding that it’s hard to tell the difference between the volunteers and the people who come to enjoy the dinner, as everyone is having a good time.

Gloria Votta cooked her first turkey for the event about 20 years ago. This year she will take over as the dining room manager.

“The whole community comes together. It’s wonderful,” Votta said.

With her husband working on Christmas Day and no small children in the family at this point, Votta said she enjoys being involved with the dinner.

“It’s really kind of amazing,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into this. It takes a lot of people to bring it together.”

There are letters to write seeking donations and phone calls to make. As the event nears, the work begins in the kitchen.

“The food preparation, the cooking, it’s unbelievable,” Votta said. “There are people from all walks of life. There are people chopping and cutting, people mashing potatoes, washing dishes, carving turkeys. Everything is made from scratch.
“A whole slew of people come in on Dec. 23, and it all comes together.”

Votta brings a friend to join the festivities.

“I really enjoy it. I am truly blessed, it’s nice to give back and help brighten the day for others,” she said.

The event, she said, is a testament to Luken’s efforts.

“It’s a wonderful thing that she has done,” she said.

Lukens said volunteers and donations are always needed.

“If you want to come and help, just come and jump in,” she said, adding that they need people with energy and enthusiasm.

The doors open at 11 a.m.

“There’s a lot to do, fill a need,” Lukens said, adding that delivery people and a clean-up crew are appreciated, too. In advance of the event, the tables need to be set and decorated.

Lukens said there is always a need for cooked turkeys and ham. The best way to deliver it is in a disposable pan, she said.

Everyone who comes to eat goes home with goodies; a big hit is the “freebie table.”

“If you have stuff you're looking to bless someone else with, like good clothing, coats, food, toiletries, whatever, bring it,” Lukens said.

“St. Peter’s has been so obliging,” she said, adding that Rev. Brian Roberts does so much to assist the effort. “He’s so gracious. He literally is what he preaches; he does this for the love of God, for the love of the community.

“And that’s what this dinner is all about.”

For more information, call Peaches or Mike Lukens at 609-398-8781 or Halley Martinez at 609-846-5151.

If you go

Ocean City community Christmas dinner

Free to attend, no reservations required

11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Wednesday, Dec. 25

St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, Eighth Street and Central Avenue in Ocean City

Volunteers needed

Call 609-398-8781

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