Peaches Lukens was praying for a Christmas miracle.
On Christmas Day for the past 22 years, Lukens has organized the free and festive Good Samaritan Christmas Day Dinner Buffet for needy people in her community.
The annual dinner, held at St. Peter's United Methodist Church in Ocean City, serves about 700 people each year with a holiday sit-down meal and another 200 to 300 people for take-out or delivery meals.
The Christmas dinner is prepared by Lukens' husband, Mike, and funded entirely by donations, most of which have come each year from Ocean City business owners. But this year, it has been different.
The affects of Hurricane Sandy on the area has made finding the funds to cover the dinner more difficult than ever before, Lukens said. Many of the locals business owners who usually give to the cause are unable to contribute this holiday, because they are hurting, too.
"I have about 30 faithful businesses that I can count on as sponsors, but most of them were affected by the storm," she said. "There was no way I was going to send them a letter asking for their support this year."
To compound the dilemma, the affects of Hurricane Sandy has increased the community's need for a free Christmas dinner. Even more people this year are homeless or out of work, Lukens said. In other words, this year's dinner has the potential to be bigger than ever before.
"FEMA has been putting people who are displaced in rental housing in Ocean City, so we have no idea how many people will show this year," she said.
Lukens' prayers were answered on Dec. 14 in the form of a $3,000 check presented to her by Restore Our Shore, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization founded by New Jersey native Melissa Kelpacki with a mission to serve the immediate needs of Hurricane Sandy victims.
After hearing Lukens' story, Kelpacki asked her how much it would cost to cover the entire event. Lukens estimated it to be $3,000. Restore Our Shore wrote a check for that amount to OCNJ C.A.R.E, which is acting as the liaison to make sure the money goes directly and entirely to Lukens to use for the Good Samaritan Christmas Day Dinner Buffet.
"We're so grateful," Lukens said. "This allows us to do even more."
She said all additional donations will be used to buy gift certificates from Ocean City businesses to be given to the attendees at the dinner.
"It's going full circle," Lukens said.
Restore Our Shore's director of public relations, Melisa LaTour, said larger nonprofit organizations, such as the Red Cross, are doing wonderful work to help storm victims, but they focus on big-picture items. Restore Our Shore's focus is serving the hurricane victims' smaller, more immediate needs, "things that need to happen right now," LaTour said.
Serving a free Christmas dinner to people hurt by the storm is an immediate need, she said.
"It's something that really lifts the spirits of the community and gives back to people who are hurting right now," LaTour said.
Lukens said the donation means a great deal to her, and it will mean a great deal to the guests at the annual dinner, many of whom have been attending the event for many years.
"By now, we're like family to them," she said.
Anyone is welcome to attend the dinner, regardless of their religion. No cost or reservation is required. The event is not "a soup kitchen," Lukens said. It's "a festive celebration."
"There will be live music, good conversation and as always, lots and lots of food," she said.
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How to help
Drop off home-cooked, cooled turkeys and hams to St. Peter's between noon and 6 p.m. Dec. 23.
Monetary donations can be mailed to Christian Community Circle, 300 Central Ave., Ocean City, NJ 08226, or dropped off at St. Peter's Methodist Church, East Eighth Street and Central Avenue in Ocean City
Volunteers are needed Dec. 24 to set up and Dec. 25 to serve. Call event organizer Peaches Lukens at 609-398-8781.