By TIM KELLY
Peaches Lukens remembers the second Ocean City Community Dinner she organized with her husband Mike.
The year was 1990, and the couple’s idea to provide a free dinner for those who had nowhere else to go had been a big success. There was just one slight problem: The person who pledged to donate the turkeys was nowhere to be found, and it was just three days before Dec. 25.
With no other alternative in mind, Mike and Peaches headed to the supermarket to buy the frozen birds in mass quantities.
“The person at checkout asked if we were having a big party,” Peaches recalled. “We explained the situation and someone said, ‘I’ll buy two of those turkeys.’ Then another said, ‘I’ll buy one.’ We left there with more donated turkeys than the number we planned to buy.”
It’s been that way and then some at the annual event. Mike Lukens said he could write a book and still not capture all the kindnesses he has witnessed while working the event, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this Christmas.
“God provides,” is the way Peaches put it.
From its origins feeding 125 people at the old Youth Center building, the event has grown to regularly feeding full Christmas dinners to more than 600 and possibly more than 1,000. Turkey and ham dinners with all the trimmings, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, beverages and desserts, it’s all there, free, just for showing up.
The event runs from noon to 3 p.m. at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church, 501 E. Eighth Street.
People young and old, rich and poor, mostly from Ocean City but also from outside local borders, are expected to attend. A small army of volunteers keeps the food lines moving and the fun going.
“This isn’t a dinner for the homeless, although we have certainly helped many people in need over the years,” said Jennifer Bowman, who has worked side-by-side with Peaches and Mike Lukens ever since the event moved to St. Peter’s more than 20 years ago.
“Many people in Ocean City have families elsewhere and they can’t travel to be with them. Not everyone has a family dinner they can go to,” Bowman added.
This year also marks the end of an era: Mike and Peaches Lukens, the event creators and organizers, will be stepping down from that role.
The couple has relocated to Cape May, and found it too difficult to accomplish the myriad of details from such a distance.
“I really wish we could keep going, but a lot of the things we do just can’t be accomplished as well over the phone,” Mike Lukens said.
If it seems like the end of an era, that’s because in one sense it is. For those who have been involved with the community dinner, however, there is faith in the event’s future, albeit somewhat uncertain at present.
Bowman, who handles much of the marketing side of the event, says the needs of the community dinner have expanded along with the number of people served and the number of volunteers who help stage it.
“We have a large facility, but we are still a church kitchen. We aren’t a commercial food service facility,” she said of St. Peter’s.
Consequently, she said, the event benefits from people who donate already-cooked turkeys and meals, as well as food items.
Mike Lukens said his neighbor donates a large quantity of mashed potatoes and Mike himself makes the cole slaw.
“Fifteen gallons worth,” he said, laughing.
Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell has donated beverages to the event for years, Bowman said.
During Thursday’s City Council meeting, Hartzell spoke of the importance of the community dinner, noting that it attracts people of all faiths and underscores Ocean City’s reputation as a family-friendly town.
“It encapsulates us as a family town,” he said. “Nothing says it better than St. Pete’s.”
There is also something called the “Miracle Room,” where donated clothing, toiletries and toys are distributed to families in need.
“We don’t even know where a lot of these donated items come from,” Mike Lukens said. “They just show up here.”
Volunteers are most needed for cleanup after dinner is over, Bowman pointed out.
“Turkey is a messy meal,” she said. “We always need folks to help with things like picking up, mopping the floors, breaking down tables and chairs. Every year that gets a little more difficult. It’s a long day.”
Of course, as in most large-scale operations, attention must be paid to the bottom line in order to keep things moving.
“Money always helps,” Bowman said, adding that she hopes the event can find a financial angel in town.
“It really amounts to about a $4,000 meal,” she said. “That’s really not (a large amount of money) for all the good this event creates in peoples’ lives. It would be great if one of the larger businesses in town would step up, or perhaps the city could become more (financially) involved.”
She mentioned builders, developers, banks and realtors as likely prospects.
“It would be great if one of the larger caterers got involved and took over the food preparation aspect as well as some of the food itself,” Bowman said.
She also said the organizers would consider placing a sponsor’s name on the event in exchange for a multi-year commitment or a large enough donation. It would be great, she said, if organizers didn’t have to scramble each year to finance the dinner.
“What we need to see now is what we saw when Superstorm Sandy hit. We need the community,” St. Peter’s Pastor Larry Oksten said. “We need people to rise up and change someone’s life by saying, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ This is what makes Ocean City such a special place.”
Bowman invited interested potential sponsors, benefactors and volunteers to call her at (609) 425-1474 or contact her at the church.
Meanwhile, this year’s event looks to be coming together, Bowman said, and the theme should be to recognize and celebrate Mike and Peaches for the tradition they’ve created.
“They are people with big hearts and they had a really good idea,” Bowman said. “It’s their baby.”
Looking back on their three decades of helping give folks a brighter Christmas, Peaches said she learned another valuable lesson.
“People aren’t always sure how they can help others over the holidays. We’ve given them a way to do that,” she said. “One thing I’ve learned is that while some people are in need of help, others have a strong need to help.”