WORTHINGTON -- Norm and Kathy Gallagher's friendship with Arnie and Deb Gerdes dates back to when the Gallaghers owned Worthington's Fleet Family Center in the late 1980s.

Deb Gerdes worked for the Gallaghers back then, and she has continued to work there even after the business was sold and became Runnings. The Gerdeses and Gallaghers also attend First United Methodist Church in Worthington, which will be the site tonight of a special event organized in the wake of tragedy.

Less than two weeks after a fire gutted the Gerdes home at 28645 Paul Ave., a benefit dinner to help the family is set from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight. Freewill donations will be accepted, and the event is open to the public.

Kathy Gallagher, along with Nancy Galland, served as cochairs for the fund-raiser.

"(Pastor) Gordon Orde called on that day (Sept. 30), but I really didn't talk to him until the next day," Kathy recollected. "Then, that Sunday morning, he handed out envelopes for everyone who wanted to give donations.

"He also announced that anyone interested in helping with something with the Gerdeses should come to the fellowship hall after the service. We had just a fantastic gathering of people."

It was quickly decided that a benefit dinner would be coordinated. A meeting between volunteers took place the following day, and church member Becky Schilling ("She's kind of the third person," Kathy said) offered to order food. The menu will include hamburgers, hot dogs, a topping bar, desserts and more.

"We called members of church to donate bars and toppings," Kathy said. "Later, after lining up workers, someone said we needed to get involved with Thrivent, as they match a lot of times."

Matching funds will be available through Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. While Kathy couldn't predict how many people will turn out for tonight's benefit, she said there will be enough food for about 350 people.

"It was very easy to put together the whole event," Kathy said, adding later, "Arnie and Deb are hard-working people, and they worked hard to get where they are. They've been very good to us over the years, and they're very caring people."

Kathy explained that the Gerdeses have been living in a camper since the fire, "but that's going to be short-term. It's kind of day to day as to whether they're going to build there again or not."

Kathy also said that Deb has already expressed her wonderment at the responses of so many in the community.

"Deb has said, 'I have a whole new insight about how people help people,'" she stated.