YORK — A crowd of several thousand enjoyed food, music, and a bonfire while supporting the York Food Pantry Saturday evening at Long Sands Beach.

The 15th Bonfire Benefit “End of the Summer Fundraiser” took place a week early this year, because, according to organizer Walter Woods of Graystone Builders, the tides would not accommodate the usual Labor Day weekend date.

Woods and his family and friends have been running the fundraiser since it began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as a fundraiser for the New York City Firefighters Fund.

The benefit has raised around $100,000 since then for local nonprofit organizations. But for the past seven years, the money has supported the York Food Pantry. Woods told the crowd, “For every $1 we raise, it is equivalent to $5 in food, and we believe it does the most for the community.”

Walter’s wife, Jennifer, said the beach bonfire idea was inspired by their memories as kids growing up on the beach and ending the summer season on Labor Day weekend with a bonfire on the beach. Laws changed and fires are no longer allowed on the beach. “The town granted us a special event permit for the 2001 event, and the tradition has continued since then,” she said.

By the 6 p.m. start time Saturday, the grills were busy, a sign-up table for raffles was set up, the band, the Morlocks, had completed sound checks, and the seaweed had been cleared from the bonfire site as the tide retreated. People set up chairs and blankets in circles around the band and around the bonfire.

Further up the beach, a wedding took place. According to Walter’s daughter Haley Ramus, the couple met at last year’s bonfire.

Sam Ramus and Rob Waniak set up the bonfire, stacking 10-foot planks, donated by Eldredge Lumber and Hardware, teepee style. Woods said food was donated by Anthony’s Food Market and the Union Bluff Hotel.

Woods said, “This community is an awesome community.”

Woods said the bonfire night raises around $7,500 to $8,000 each year; last year it raised $9,200. Over 600 meals were served.

Tom and Debbie Joyce and daughter their 1-year-old daughter Layla, from the Boston, Massachusetts area, brought their dinner with them. They were visiting for the weekend. Tom Joyce said, “This is our first time at the bonfire.” Layla sported a pink “Maine” hoodie.

YCSA Executive Director Michelle Surdoval roamed the sands with her granddaughter, Elizabeth. The YCSA runs the food pantry, amongst other services. Surdoval said the YCSA has existed for 50 years, but she is the first executive director. “This is huge, to have a community event with locals and tourists,” she said.

The YCSA van was parked nearby, open for food pantry donations.

According to Surdoval, the YCSA serves 325 York families with the food pantry, support for rent and utilities, case management for families in crisis and General Assistance for the town of York. “The food pantry is the primary grocery source for many families,” she said.

Just after 7 p.m., the bonfire was lit, and it seemed that more people suddenly appeared, probably because the bonfire could be seen from up and down the beach and out to sea. York Beach Fire Department personnel with trucks stood careful watch.

Later, as the band took a break, Walter Woods took the microphone to thank everyone for coming to the bonfire and supporting the York Food Pantry.

The York Food Pantry is located at 38 Woodbridge Road. It is open to accept donations on Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It is open for clients to shop Thursdays from 12:30 p.m to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

The YCSA also runs a thrift store at 1320 Route 1 in Cape Neddick.

In October, all YCSA services and offices will move to a new location at 855 Route 1 in York. Surdoval said there will be an opening celebration then.

The Woods family said volunteers have been with them since the first benefit. Most are locals and some come from neighboring states for the weekend to help out.

The Bonfire Benefit volunteers are Lyndsay Woods, Haley and Sam Ramus, Sally Woods, Michael Woods, Gary Woods (YBFD), Bill Woods, Rick Woods, Jeanne Haley, Nancy Taylor, Pat Taylor, Ann Crossley, Tina, Emily and Rob Waniak, Laurie and Shawn Troy, Sue Wynne, Brad and Lisa Countryman, Cindy Cirelli, Cindy Munroe, Paul and Sophia Santerre, Ray and Dawn DeFeo, and Sam and Jennifer Williams.

As seen on seacoastonline.com