OCEAN CITY – The tradition of a free Christmas dinner will continue next weekend, but organizers are not just collecting and preparing for the big day but meals to come throughout the year.
The Nothing Other than Eating and Loving (NOEL) Community got the idea 14 years ago when a community-wide event was held at St. Pauls by-the Sea Episcopal Church on 3rd Street. It is a group that is made up of 100 percent of volunteers and run off of 100 percent donations.
“The NOEL Community is committed to providing an enjoyable and positive outreach environment for those we serve and those who serve,” volunteer Katie Coffman said.
The Christmas dinner was started by the parish, St. Pauls by-the Sea, because it wanted to have a place that people could go on Christmas Day.
“In those days, it was probably, even with all the volunteers, less than 50 people,’ Coffman said. “Now we have 1,675 meals and we’ve got 100 volunteers involved in it.”
NOEL Community carries on the tradition by serving free home cooked turkey and ham dinners with all the trimmings to everyone at the dinner. They also provide toys or gifts to those in need.
The group takes the term “deck the halls” to a whole other level by decorating the first floor of the parish from top to bottom, including a toy land with Santa Claus to hand out gifts. Dewes Hall is also beautifully decorated with a buffet, dessert station, dining tables and even live entertainment.
According to Coffman, over 1,600 meals were served last year, including carryout. The homeless, shut-in, unemployed, underemployed, lonely and elderly were served. NOEL Community also serves hot meals to police officers, fire personnel and other public servants on Christmas Day.
“When we first started, believe it or not that was about 10 years ago … we were only doing about 100 to 150 meals. … now we actually turn the hall several times,” Coffman said.
According to Coffman, organizers are expecting more this year as it is becoming increasingly more difficult for the working poor and unemployed to meet basic needs. NOEL Community is in need of all different foods, supplies, toys, gifts and funds, which have been being donated by local churches, restaurants, hotels, businesses, civic groups and individuals.
“The reality of it is we cannot get everybody into the hall that wants to be in the hall that day,” Coffman said of the hall that seats about 120 at a time.
She added that there are a portion of attendees that prefer carryout over sit-down so they are able to take their meal and enjoy it at home.
“It may be a humble home but it is still home … some people don’t have a home or a place they want to be on Christmas Day so they can be here,” Coffman said.
NOEL Community has already begun its collections, as cans of green beans, boxes of stuffing and potatoes are piled high, but collections will continue non-stop as the big day arrives.
NOEL also serves lunches every Saturday with leftover food and funds from over the holidays. There were over 5,000 meals prepared throughout the last year. In the beginning of the year, sit-down lunches are available but as it comes closer to the busy season lunches are available for carry-out through Shepard’s Crook, a food and clothing pantry run out of St. Pauls by-the Sea by volunteers.
“One year we had left over food from Christmas and we said ‘well let’s do a lunch next Saturday’ … and then the next year we had enough food to do a couple lunches, and the following year it grew,” Coffman said.
During late January and early February, the NOEL Community, along with the help of the Roman Catholic Churches and the Worcester County Libraries, hosted the 8th Annual gLOVEs drive. Hundreds of items were collected for distribution by Shepard’s Crook and other groups providing social services in the community.
For the Christmas Day dinner, nonperishable foods and toys can be dropped off at St. Pauls by-the Sea on 3rd Street on Dec. 23 and 24, 10 a.m. to noon. Checks can be made payable to NOEL Community and mailed to P.O. Box 1207, Ocean City, Md., 21843. If there are any questions, call St. Pauls by-the Sea, 410-289-3452, and leave a message for Coffman.
“It’s fun,” Coffman said of Christmas Day at St. Pauls by-the Sea. “For me, this is where I want to be.”