Paula Tolmie Pepper knows the charitable nature of the Cape community well.
As a lifelong resident of the area, Pepper has always been willing to lend a helping hand to those in need, and the community happily returned the favor.
When Pepper was in the midst of health issues in 1987, the Cape community rallied to raise $10,000 for her and her family to cover expenses. It's an act she will never forget.
“I want to pay it forward,” she said. “Anything that really catches me, I'll volunteer. I just never had the time to do it because it's work, work, work, work.”
Now that she has time, she's eager to help.
“If I really believe in the cause, it's 100 percent,” she said.
Pepper has been at the forefront of a number of fundraisers and benefits for ailing Cape Region residents. In September, she worked with Michael Daisey to organize a benefit for Lewes musician Linde Bakke. The event, which raised about $16,000, helped cover expenses associated with Bakke's fight against cancer. Unfortunately, Bakke lost that battle in October.
Pepper said she gets her charitable mentality from her mother, Julia, who suffered cerebral aneurysms that paralyzed the left side of her body. She said watching her mother's determination to not let her condition hold her back was inspiring.
“She was just so determined and unselfish beyond belief,” she said. “You could come home, and she would've changed all the furniture around with one arm.”
The condition is hereditary and Pepper also has suffered aneurysms during her life.
“I'm lucky to be here,” she said.
During the tough times, she said, is when she learned the community's true colors.
“The locals threw a benefit for me at the DeBraak Inn and raised $10,000 in four days,” she said. “The local businesses are just so giving. The bartenders were giving up their tips in Dewey Beach for me.”
Pepper has a long relationship with restaurant owners of Dewey Beach. She said she's known Dewey Beach Enterprises partner Jim Baurle since he was a janitor at the Bottle & Cork more than 30 years ago. Now, she works part-time for Baurle and Dave Rommel as the breakfast manager at the Captain's Table on the Forgotten Mile, north of Dewey Beach.
The food service industry is in Pepper's blood. She started working at her parents' Carmen's Sub Shop on Front Street at 14 years old. After her mother died, she said, the family sold the business and then the building a few years later. She said friends and neighbors still comment about the old sub shop.
“Just the other day I saw I guy I grew up with in Lewes who said there hasn't been a sub since,” she said. “All the locals really know a lot about that.”
The Tolmies renovated the floors above the sub shop and moved into what Pepper describes as her mom's dream house when she was 7 years old. On New Years Eve 1970, she said, she vividly remembers a fire that swept through the downtown area, damaging many homes and businesses.
“My father worked for Lou Ianire as a bartender, and I remember calling down there and saying, 'The house is on fire,'” she said. “It was New Year's Eve. He came running up, and we had to evacuate. I felt like I was in the Wizard of Oz.”
Since the sub shop days, she said, she's spent her working life bouncing around at numerous restaurants. For 16 years, she worked for Chip Hearn at the Country Squire, then moved on to the Lighthouse restaurant in Lewes, now known as The Wharf. She also spent several years working as a banquet manager at Delaware Technical Community College, where she organized countless black-tie events. She said the Delaware Tech job is what's helped her become so adept at organizing benefits in the community. More recently, Pepper was a manager at Books and Coffee in the Ruddertowne complex and worked with Mary Beth Furjanic during events at the Baycenter. She also spent some time working for her friend Dave Kergaard at Club Fitness in Rehoboth Beach.
She is married to Don “Doc” Pepper, one of the founders of Punkin Chunkin. She said this year was the first time she's ever missed the event. While they sold their air cannon Smokin' three years ago, Pepper said, her husband is still on the front lines.
“He just kind of wants to socialize now,” she said.
The Peppers' cannon with the new owners finished fourth at this year's event with a shot 3,745 feet. Pepper was also a member of the former all-women team Chunkin' For The Cure, which finished fourth in 2011 and second in 2009 and 2010 in the adult female air division. The all-female team was right up Pepper's alley, as it raised money and awareness for breast cancer research.
Pepper said she's actively seeking more charitable work and hopes to work with Delaware Hospice and its Festival of Trees. After the support she received from the community during her tough times, she said, she'll always be supportive of her neighbors.
“Everybody just pulls together for their friends,” she said. “It's just amazing. You respect people who respect you back.”