SALINA — For his first Christmas in Salina, Pierce Randall could think of no better way to spend his holiday than to help prepare a free meal for nearly 4,500 people.

That’s how many people were expected to attend the 36th annual Bill Fekas Family Christmas Dinner this year, so Randall joined dozens of other volunteers at Salina’s 4-H building at Kenwood Park to help open about 250 cans of green beans and peaches each, prepare more than 200 turkeys, make stuffing from more than 800 loaves of bread and peel more than 800 pounds of potatoes.

“I’m new to town, and my family is back east (in Massachusetts), so I saw this as a good way to get involved and help people out,” said Randall, who moved to Salina recently to take a job at Great Plains Manufacturing.

Randall said he used to help serve Meals on Wheels back home, so he sees this is a great way to continue his volunteer service.

“This is really what Christmas is all about,” he said. “Helping a neighbor and coming together as a community.”

The Bill Fekas Family Christmas Dinner took place from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. Tuesday at the 4-H Building. Although there were plenty of people in line waiting for the doors to open, Fekas said the line never gets too long at the come-and-go event where everything is prepared ahead of time and dozens of volunteers keep things moving smoothly.

“After 36 years, I hope I know what I’m doing by now,” he said. “We have a lot of good people here. I couldn’t do this at all without the volunteers.”

Fekas said he planned for 4,500 people at this year’s dinner. Last year, more than 4,400 attended.

With that many people to prepare for, some volunteers started the prep process a full week before the event. A crew was scheduled to begin preparing delivery and to-go meals beginning at 2 a.m. Christmas morning.

Others arrived later in the morning to help seat people, serve meals, take phone orders or deliver meals to different locations around town. The day after Christmas, many of them planned to return to assist with clean-up.

Salinan Calvin Kelsey began volunteering last Monday. He spent most of Christmas Eve morning breaking and whisking about 40 dozen eggs to help make stuffing that would fill up to 55 containers. He was assisted by his son Jeff Wilson, who said he was visiting from Colorado Springs.

“I’ve done this about 12 years,” said Kelsey, who retired from the Salina Fire Department two years ago. “It’s a great way to help out and give back. I’ve been here since Monday preparing, and I’ll be here Wednesday to help clean up, so it’s about a week-and-a-half of activity.”

About 25 volunteers sat in various circles around trash cans Christmas Eve to peel hundreds of potatoes. Many of them only see each other this one time of year and look forward to the fellowship, said Gypsum resident Leon Hahn, who has been peeling potatoes and doing many other volunteer tasks for 10 years.

“We do this to help old Bill out, because it’s a wonderful thing he does for the community,” Hahn said. “Christmas wouldn’t be the same without this.”

Salinans Bill and Susan Tuzicka said they plan their whole Christmas around this annual event.

“I’m peeling potatoes today and taking phone orders tomorrow,” Susan Tuzicka said. “We like doing what we can to give back to the community.”

Salinan Darlene Smith said she’s peeled so many potatoes in her lifetime “that I don’t have to practice for this.” For fun, she said she likes to weigh how many pounds of potatoes she peels each year. Two years ago it was 60 pounds. Last year she peeled 70.

“You always have to try to beat last year’s amount,” she said with a laugh.

By Christmas morning, the menu items — which included turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans, cottage cheese with peach halves, pie and ice cream — had been set out in the kitchen, ready for fresh plates to be filled in an assembly line format as volunteer servers called out for them.

“We dish up the plates when (servers) call the number they need at the door,” said Salinan Gary Jensen, a volunteer at the dinner for about four years. “That way everyone gets their dinner fresh and warm.”

Even though Jensen hasn’t been helping with the dinner as long as some volunteers, he said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else at Christmas.

“Look at all the people who come here, people from all walks of life,” he said. “It’s a really good fellowship.”