By Maddy Vitale
By noon Christmas day, Mike Lukens and his team of volunteers, were steadily serving up 60 turkeys, 20 hams, 130 loaves of bread and 20 gallons of coleslaw.
By 11:30 a.m., more than 175 people had already entered St. Peter’s Methodist Church, 8th Street and Central Avenue, for the free Community Christmas Dinner from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. By the end of the day, 600 people had entered the doors to enjoy hot turkey or ham dinners with all the trimmings, shared laughs, conversation and company.
“That’s what it is all about,” Lukens said, about the dinner, which is in its 28th year.
The kitchen staff – made up of dedicated volunteers, were all business Christmas afternoon. Pete Disciasio, of Ocean City, known as, ‘Pete the mashed potato man,’ has made the delicious side for the Christmas dinner for 20 years.
But is there a secret recipe Disciasio is hiding? “No. They’re just regular mashed potatoes. I like making them for the dinner,” he said.
For Lukens, his wife Peaches, and their daughter Halley Martinez, providing a dinner for anyone in the community who wishes to come on Christmas day, is their family tradition, one that Martinez hopes to pass along to her children, ages 1 and 5.
The day is as much about company, friendship and hope, as it is about a meal, Martinez said.
Elizabeth Kinsey, of Ocean City, comes every year for the company. “It’s hard for me to get together with my family. I don’t drive, and they live far away. I like coming here,” Kinsey said. “Everyone is so friendly. It is like we are family. It is really a blessing.”
Allie and Mark Wilson, of Northfield, learned about the dinner through their friend Martinez. The couple volunteers to help out and they also enjoy the dinner with their children Norah, 6, and Henry, 3.
“This is our second year. We want to make it a tradition,” Allie Wilson said. “We spend time with our family, but we also come to the dinner because we want the kids to know Christmas isn’t all about us, or all about presents. It’s about celebrating family and helping other people. Our hope is they will grow up and do what we do.”
A steady stream of guests lined up at the food station for heaping portions of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and other sides to go with generous slices of turkey and ham.
Helen and Don Mullen have volunteered for 17 years and have spooning out steamy hot foods for the guests down to a science.
“Our family doesn’t live close,” Helen Mullen said without missing a beat serving the guests. “These people have become family.”
Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell volunteers every year. He was pouring drinks for the guests throughout the day.
Donna Kelly, of Ocean City, has volunteered for 10 years. She was at the door greeting people.
“I do it because it is a heartwarming experience to be with people,” Kelly, of Ocean City, said. “It is truly a community event. I tell my family this is a gift I give to myself – to be able to come here and do this. I love it.”
Janice Marziani, of Somers Point, also enjoys the feeling of volunteering at the dinner.
“I have been volunteering for three years now. I do it because there are a lot of people who are alone. This is an opportunity for me to give back. That is what Christmas is all about – community.
For more information about the dinner or if you wish to volunteer in the future call Mike Lukens at 609-892-3482.