Pulling off Lanai's annual Christmas lunch is a lot of work, but seeing the community come together to honor its kupuna makes the event worthwhile, say organizers Cindy Sagawa and Maggie Masicampo.
"It's just great to come here and see everybody be happy," Maggie says. "Everybody's having a good time together. It just feels good on Christmas Day to be doing something with and for someone else."
The event started more than 20 years ago as a free, home-delivered Christmas lunch for around 15 to 20 senior citizens in a program funded by the 700 Club of Maui and coordinated by the Lanai Senior Center and Lanai Baptist Church. The lunch was meant to fill the gap for seniors who received a regular home meal service, which wasn't offered on the Christmas holiday.
Volunteers Josh Ige (from left), Toshiko Miyamoto and Sonia Meschek prepare turkey for Lanai’s annual Christmas Day lunch. More than 150 residents are expected to attend this year’s event, with an additional 100 meals delivered to homebound seniors.
Photo courtesy of Cindy Sagawa
When the original organizers moved to Oahu, Cindy stepped in on behalf of Lanai Baptist Church, where she is a member, while Maggie, who serves as director of the Lanai Senior Center, managed the venue. When the 700 Club of Maui disbanded a few years later, the two helped rally the Lanai community to keep the event going.
Today it is supported by local residents, businesses and organizations, including Costco, Walmart and the Mayor Alan Arakawa Community Fund. Lanai Civil Service and Trilogy Excursions set aside turkeys and rice from the island's annual Thanksgiving giveaway, while many residents who live alone or don't cook for Thanksgiving will donate their turkey.
Monetary donations for the event are accepted year-round and can be mailed to the Lanai Senior Citizens Christmas Lunch, P.O. Box 630149, Lanai City 96763.
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With so much support, the event has grown. This Christmas, "We anticipate 150 people to join us for lunch," Cindy says. An additional 100 home-delivered meals are planned, both for regular clients of the meals-on-wheels program and for an expanded list of homebound Lanai residents.
While seniors are still the honored guests at the free event, today it's open to "anyone and everyone," she adds.
"It's just a real community function," Maggie says.
"Everybody does something. We have people who volunteer to deliver those 100 lunches; other people come and serve."
Local musicians provide the entertainment, a mystery guest serves as Santa, seniors and volunteers decorate the hall and trim the seven donated Christmas trees, and volunteers from island churches help prepare the meal, including turkeys, green beans, stuffing and yams.
"We buy the food, we give them the food, they cook the food, and they bring it on Christmas Day to the senior center," Cindy adds.
But the event this year will be bittersweet without one of its longtime volunteers, Maggie says.
"Phyllis McOmber always made the gravy for the turkeys," she says. "We lost her this year, so I think that's going to be real tough on everybody."
In addition to Lanai Baptist Church, Sacred Hearts Jesus & Mary Catholic Church, Lanai Union Church, Lanai Seventh-day Adventist Church, First Assembly of God Church, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of Lanai City participate in the event and help prepare food.
The Four Seasons Resort donates two gourmet sheet cakes for the event, while other residents drop off homemade pies and goodies.
"Early arrivers" to the party help shred the turkey and start prepping the food, and 11 drivers will leave the center at 10:30 a.m. to distribute the meals.
"They'll get a regular plate with turkey, dressing and stuffing, they'll get a fruit and a dessert," Cindy says. "And they'll get a gift bag with 'exciting' things like toilet paper, paper towels and cookies."
Delivering meals to homebound seniors is Maggie's favorite part of the day.
"To be able to wish them a Merry Christmas and talk to them for a minute and give them a hug and kiss, it really makes their day," she says.
Back at the senior center, lunch begins promptly at 11 a.m., gift bags are handed out to seniors by 11:30 a.m., "and by 12:15 they're all taking a nap," Cindy says.
When she's not helping organize the Christmas lunch, Maggie says she loves her job as director of the Lanai Senior Center.
"I'm having a hard time retiring," she says. "I love it and I love them."
She also enjoys helping friends and neighbors plan their events and celebrations, creating flower arrangements and providing all the party essentials.
"I do weddings, I do funerals, I do parties," she says. "All you have to do is ask."
Cindy serves as the Sunday school and Vacation Bible School director for Lanai Baptist Church and also works as the coordinator of the Kids Art Club at the Lanai Art Center, which provides children with an hourlong art activity after school two days a week.
"I use a lot of glue," she says.
Both women say that the island's small-town feel and community spirit are what they love about Lanai.
"People are very willing to help their community, and it's a very comfortable community," Cindy says. "When you walk the square you can pet all the dogs and cats and kids along the way, you can talk story at the post office. It's a pretty friendly community - everybody waves, even if they don't really know you."
"It's a slow place," adds Maggie. "If an old man walks down the middle of the street, you'd never think about honking at him, you'd just wait for him to move to the side. That's the kind of country living how I was raised."
* Formerly a reporter for The Maui News, Ilima Loomis is a writer on Maui.