Every year on the first Monday night in December, the cafeteria of the Cape May City Elementary School is filled with people enjoying what has become a tradition for many families - the Great Cookie Exchange sponsored by the Center for Community Arts.

Parents bring children to enjoy a night of free holiday fun, including making Santa and elf hats, holiday bags and boxes, ornaments, cards - and cookies, many baked on the premises. Santa visits, and there is caroling and raffle prizes, such as new bicycles and gift baskets donated by local merchants.

It takes more than 75 volunteers to pull off the event. Many have been coming for years. They man the tables with the crafts, give apple juice and coffee to visitors, and help children make crafts and sugar cookies in the cafeteria ovens. A long table is filled with all kinds of cookies, many brought by the guests. People come up with their decorated bags and boxes to claim their stash. That is one hard, fast rule: No decorated basket, no cookies!

Yvonne Wright-Gary, program assistant for CCA, said this is the 18th year for the event.

"The purpose is to do something positive for the kids in the community," Wright-Gary said. "It's just a fun, holiday event that is free for everyone to enjoy. A lot of families can't afford to spend a lot for holiday entertainment, so they can come here and have a fun-filled night for free. We see the same families year after year. Eventually, the children grow up and bring their own children to the event, so we see generations of families come. It's just a really good time."

Hope Gaines has been a volunteer since the event began.

"I just love it and wouldn't miss it for the world," Gaines said. "It's organized chaos, but we have never, ever had a problem of misbehavior here out of any of the kids and teenagers who come. It's just so much fun and so festive."

Peggy Long, of Lower Township, is also a longtime volunteer.

"I recognize so many of the little faces I see year after year," Long said. "It's just nice to see the families come out and enjoy themselves. I think the grownups have more fun than the kids do."

In the kitchen, Milt Edelman, of West Cape May, and Dr. Warren Betty, of Cold Spring, were busy making peanut-butter chocolate cookies. Edelman said the men are kept in the kitchen, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

"We're so used to it, the same thing each year," Betty said. "It's chaotic, but we work well together. It gets pretty hot in here but at my age, I like the heat. The best part is just seeing the kids' faces and how much fun they're having."

April Robinson, of Rio Grande, has been bringing her four grandsons to the event for years. This year was special, because Robinson's daughter had just given birth to Robinson's fifth grandson that day, she said.

"This is just a tradition. We have to be here each year," Robinson said. "I wouldn't miss it. The kids love it all, from making the cookies to eating them. It's a wonderful holiday event."

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