Plates were heaped with turkey, dressing, green beans, sweet potatoes, and much more as more than 100 people came together to share a free Thanksgiving day dinner at Peace Lutheran Church in New Lenox.

They also shared much more than a meal.

Whether they were dining, cooking or serving, the fellowship of the day was as equally important as the feast itself. Guests left with bright smiles on their faces, gifts from Santa, food for another meal and a promise to “see you next year.”

“I have no family, so it is really nice to come here,” said Barb Davidson, of New Lenox. “There are wonderful people here. I cannot believe that they go so much out of their way to provide for us.”

“We enjoy the pastor, his preaching and the food, of course,” said Mike Gioiosa, of Blue Island, as he munched on a turkey leg. “I recommend the turkey and the broccoli casserole.”

This year, there were eight turkeys, 35 pounds of ham, dozens of pies and countless side dishes.

For the past 17 years, church members not only donated the food but provided transportation to those who needed it and delivered meals to those unable to attend.

It was started as a way to reach out to those who may be new in town or didn’t want to be alone on the holiday or just wanted to meet people.

Over the years, the church has stepped up efforts to reach those in need, and as the economy soured, more people have taken advantage of the free meal. Each year, there are regulars as well as new faces.

Peace Lutheran Church has become their home for this holiday.

“There would not have been any Thanksgiving this year if not for these kind folks,” said one guest, who did not want to give her name. “We are very thrilled and very fortunate to be invited. It is a blessing.”

Shirella Sanders and her family came to Peace Lutheran from Matteson for the first time.

“This is really nice. We will absolutely be back next year,” she said.

It began with about 80 people, and this year, nearly 140 meals were served.

Many have been coming for years and look forward to it, the Rev. Dave Hedlin said. Seeing the joy on the faces of the guests is why the church does it, he said.

Church member George Rumbaugh has overseen the effort since its inception. There are so many who have pitched in — to prepare food, decorate, shop for food and gifts, provide rides and clean up, it is impossible to name them all, he said. The church secretaries are an integral part of it, too, as they confirm reservations, line up rides and compile lists of volunteers and donated dishes.

Rumbaugh keeps copious notes of what was consumed — every glass of milk, every cup of coffee — and tries to make it better and more efficient each year.

The wonderful spirit of people helping is infectious,” Hedlin said.

The meal also kicks off the Christmas holiday, with a visit from Santa, who had gifts for young and old.

Arteamus Fabian, of Joliet, has been coming for years and took home a Santa-shaped gift box filled with candy and holiday treats.

“This is a really nice gift,” she said. “I really enjoyed the food and fellowship.”

At the end of the day, there was no such thing as leftovers. Guests filled doggie bags, and the remaining food was taken to Morning Star Missions.

“Nothing goes to waste. It all goes to people who need it,” Rumbaugh said.