The gift of cans, lightsabers

December 21, 2005

It’s a lightsaber. Like the one Obe Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker use in Star Wars. When you extend it and push this little button, it’ll light up, just like in the movies.

You can get it at most toy stores for about $7.

But the one you are holding in your hand is much more valuable.

That’s because of who gave it to you.

It’s from your community – Hood River. From the stores downtown. And up on the Heights. From customers who stopped by and dropped a few dollars in the jar.

From the high school’s student leaders. Its basketball team. And hundreds of individuals in every class. Police departments. Churches and clubs. Fire departments. Even Wal-Mart gave.

You’d never be able to write a thank you card to everybody who contributed to that lightsaber.

Their givers are too many and their gifts are not quantifiable.

You are probably noticing by now the other families here at the Expo Center. All the kids your age, running around with unwrapped dolls and toy trucks of their own. Mothers cradling bags of food in their arms.

Five hundred and six families will move through this building between today – Friday – and tomorrow. And in that time, the Christmas Project coordinators and volunteers will handout between $60,000 and $80,000 worth of food and toys.

It’s a gargantuan event, loosely organized by dozens of people and consolidated by one charge: Give.

The Fashion Show –

For Cathy Carter, the Christmas Project begins in August. That’s the month in which Carter starts recruiting models for the show. She’s been a part of the Fashion Show since it began nine years ago, initially as one of the dozen or so models. In the last five or six years, however, she took over the organizational effort of it – a commitment aimed at bringing models, marketing and the masses in between four walls.

When it started back in 1996, three or four downtown shops and a dozen or so models participated. They raised about $500.

This year, 12 merchants donated enough to the Christmas Project to be a part of the show.

One hundred locals – shop owners and shop workers – modeled clothes and a little skin – for the cause.

Even the Hood River Hotel donated 12 rooms – one for each merchant.

The Fashion Show raised $4,600 for Christmas Project.

“Everybody said this was the best show yet,” Carter said. “Every year it’s gotten more and more popular and selling out in less and less days. People are now asking how they can get involved, how can they contribute instead of us asking them.”

Canned food drive –

Troy Tactay starts pushing the canned food drive to his first period calculus students during the first week of the school year – more than a month before the students will actually collect the cans of soup, stew and vegetables that will end up in the pantry of the FISH Food Bank and in carefully arranged boxes on the Expo Center’s cement floor.

Every first period class begins with a few-minute rally, reminding his students of their intended goal and pointers coaching them to it.

Take advantage of the Civil War weekend, he suggested once. A lot of people around the valley will be home to watch it on television.

“If you combine a good cause with something people like,” he says. “You will do a lot better than just a good cause.”

Last year, Tactay’s first period class brought in 11,000 cans. That amount quadrupled the offerings of the second place finisher, set a school record and assured every student of a much-craved luau.

It also established a new standard.

That year, Hood River Valley High School collected 26,000 cans in 20 days.

“It used to be that 4,000 to 5,000 cans was a good number,” says Bob Kadell, the student leadership teacher who’s serving as the overall director of the drive. “In 1990, it started shooting up. In 2003, we barely had 20,000 cans.”

This year, Tactay’s first period calculus class was determined to raise the standard even higher.

But they had six less days to achieve it.

Associated Student Body president Jenna Fisher, Vice President Matt Byrne, Alex Titus, Dani Peters and Aerial MacMillan figured they had 14 days with which to work.

They spent six and a half hours on three Saturdays walking from door to door, introducing themselves and what they were doing and asking, over and over and over again.

“We collected in Hood River and then we went to Odell,” Fisher says. “We spent all day out there. We probably got 500 cans.”

Students in other classes were working too. And by yesterday, when student Melissa Princehouse was tallying the effort with a calculator and notebook in the school’s cafeteria their work showed.

In the last three days of the drive, the school had gleaned 16,000 cans from the community.

Tactay’s totals beat 2004’s by a few hundred: 12,050.

The school brought in 26,574 – 500 more than last year.

“It averages out to about 24 cans per student,” Kadell says. “Some bring in a few hundred. Some bring in zero. But it all averages out.”

As Kadell is saying this, he’s driving a truck-load of organized and sorted cans to the FISH Food Bank on the Heights. He’s following 17 trucks – most of them belonging to students or their parents.

“That’s part of what makes us a Super School,” Kadell smiles.

All morning, scores of students have been packing and sorting the food by type: pasta all in one box, soups, stews, vegetables each in their own boxes.

And, like an army of well-organized ants, those 30 or 40 students had in 20 minutes loaded each one of those 26,000 cans into a truck.

They took 3,800 of them to the Expo Center to add to the food that Rosauers and other food drives have already contributed.

A genuine need –

They’re taking these 23,000-plus cans to the FISH Food Bank on the Heights, where they’ll stock the pantry, the perimeter of the basement and a walk-in closet with the cans of their labor.

The task will take them less than an hour.

But the products of their toil will help keep Hood River County’s poorest families fed for another year.

“The bulk of the food comes in between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says Marianne Durkan, president of FISH Food Board. “We’re just starting to run out of food from last year.”

After the students leave, FISH volunteers will transform these boxes into those containing vegetables, carbohydrates and protein – enough nutrients to last a family for three to five days.

“That’s why they are considered emergency food boxes,” said Janeal Booren, director of the Mid-Columbia Community Action, the non-profit, which oversees food banks in Hood River and Wasco counties.

FISH can produce 300 of these boxes a month. And every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, a line of anxious people, is trailing outside FISH’s door, a half-hour before Durkam opens it.

FISH has enough to serve about 1,000 families a year.

“We have 35 to 40 families show up every day we open,” Durkan says.”

According to Booren, 2,375 (14 percent) Hood River County residents survive below the federal poverty line.

Demand for free food is so high in Hood River County – and elsewhere – that FISH allows familes to pick up a box only every 30 days.

A grave distinction –

Oregon was, until 2003, the nation’s most food insecure state.

Now, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, it’s the eighth most hungry state: 12.9 percent of Oregon households have experienced food insecurity – defined by having difficulty providing all meals for all members of the family. And 3.5 percent of households have experience true hunger – defined by missing a meal due to lack of food.

Oregon improved from the hungriest state to the eighth hungriest state by pushing food stamps into the budgets of the poor and by expanding its emergency food box distribution.

But the state’s hunger problem is still exacerbated by high costs for housing and an overwhelming seasonal work force.

Perhaps no county better epitomizes that conundrum than Hood River County, where most residents find employment in the orchards and at Mt. Hood Meadows.

Last November, for example, when Meadows hadn’t even opened yet, Hood River County’s unemployment rate was 7.3 percent.

This year, largely due to Meadows’ early opening, that rate has dropped to 5.5 percent.

“The Hood River unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in October,” said Dallas Fridley, the state’s employment economist. “By historical standards, the jobless rates posted in the county in September and October were the county’s best showing in more than a decade. The rate was 4.2 in September 1995.”

But, says Fridley, the monthly costs of rent are rising faster.

And one of the few ways social workers are minimizing the hunger impacts of high rent is through food drives.

They account for 14 percent of the Oregon Food Bank’s total food. And too often for some meals, 100 percent of what a poor family might eat that evening for supper.

Despite the plummeting unemployment rates and because of the rising costs of rent, most of the Oregon Food Bank’s 18 regional food centers are struggling to stave the hunger.

“The food drives in Wasco County are down,” Mid-Columbia Community Action director Booren said. “Our shelves here are bare: at St. Vincent DePaul and at the Salvation Army. The only one that’s doing well is FISH. It has great local support. FISH stands out. I went to their pantry recently. They’re just packed with food from floor to ceiling. It was wall to wall bags of food.”

A lot of that – all of the food downstairs – is what the students brought in on Thursday morning.

The other food, the bags Booren is talking about, is from Rosauer’s annual Hunger Bag drive. For the last five years, Rosauers has packed bags full of food, which hunger experts say is essential for a nutritious diet.

A grocery shopper can buy one for $5 or $10. And Rosauers stretches those $5 and $10 as far as possible.

“You don’t make money on it,” said assistant manager Doug Bohn, who is in charge of the program. “It’s not there to make money. It’s there to supply the food bank.”

Rosauers sells about 150 Hunger Bags a week.

When that drive ends in November, Bohn awaits the phone call of Bruce Holmson.

Holmson is a 56-year-old forester, who’s worked for the Gifford-Pinchot National Forest for 10 years. At this point in his career, he gets six weeks of vacation time.

And uses one of those weeks to focus on this: the Christmas Project.

He’s the leader of the volunteer team that organized all this food and all these toys for your family and 519 other ones; for you and for 2,000 others.

After all has been requested for and completed, Holmson figures his team has invested 500 hours into the Christmas Project since the first organizational meeting in September.

“It brings the true meaning of the holidays to me,” Holmson said. “It helps me get my mind where it should be. But the important thing is this: every year there’s a need. That what makes this worthwhile. Especially at needy times during the holidays.”

Way back when, it wasn’t so different –

But the Christmas Project begins long before September of 2005.

It begins, actually, on Dec. 17, 1920 with an article in Hood River’s newspaper, the Hood River Glacier.

Europeans, at that time, were enduring severe economic hardship wrought from post-World War I inflation.

The story in that winter, urged Hood River residents to donate what they could to Europe’s starving and malnourished children.

A week later, a front page article in the Glacier, exposed Hood River County’s own state of poverty and destitution.

“Family living on Montello;” the article read. “Seven children, oldest ten years; occupy a shack made of roofing paper and wood, 8 x 10 x 6; one bed on which all sleep; children barefooted in snow and rain, insufficiently clad; mother just recovering from illness; father working sometimes …”

Commercial Club President J.H. Fredricy, who had revealed Hood River County’s own poor, initiated a fund with $10 and asked for others to contribute.

“… others at once offered to provide funds for the poor and destitute.”

By Christmas of 1923, the Elks and specifically John Baker had taken over the project – although it had no real name yet, save for the informal “Christmas effort” and the “annual free Christmas show and tree.”

Every kid got candy and nuts.

Two years later, Baker was still building the project – 700 children showed up that year from White Salmon, Bingen, Underwood and Mosier. And one of Baker’s primary missions for that year was to find enough transportation for all the children and to convince the Hood River – White Salmon Bridge to, on this Christmas occasion, allow them to cross the bridge without paying a toll.

“There’s a feeling that the directors of the company will be kindly enough to make this special concession for the kiddies at Christmas time,” the article read.

Forty-some years later, the Elks effort combined with the Toys-for-Tots program to provide a Christmas dinner and toys for children and their families.

The Elks carried the project until 1996, when its members decided they could no longer fund such an expansive and expensive project.

They asked the Hood River Lions if they could give it a try.

The Lions took them up on it. And in 1999, they decided to make the Christmas Project’s toy drive one of their seven primary efforts. They devoted $5,000 in their budget to purchasing toys.

To purchasing the lightsaber you are still holding in your hands.

I could go on about the food baskets, which 70 volunteers will deliver to 100 senior citizens up in Parkdale and over in Cascade Locks on Saturday.

About the two afternoons community and student volunteers devoted to sorting through each of the toys to make sure you get a lightsaber instead of a doll. And that your little sister got a doll instead of a toy truck.

But there’s too much to tell you about. Too much giving to explain with a few thousand words.

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