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Holiday charities do well, buck national trend

Apparently, Grinches are few and far between on Whidbey Island.

With collective goodwill and a keen holiday spirit, island residents bucked the national trend toward declining contributions to charitable organizations during this year’s holiday season.

At the national level, a severely slumping economy, poor consumer confidence and the ongoing reverberations of the Sept. 11 attacks have led to lower rates of donations to organizations that help the needy during Christmas time.

However, judging from the reports of many local fundraisers, folks around here have stepped up to the proverbial plate to help out those in need. Several organizations, such as the Elks Lodge and the Salvation Army, have experienced a level of giving that either approaches or surpasses that of years past.

Jeanette Sem, lodge secretary for the Elks, said that the amount of donations this year was surprisingly good.

“It’s more than we’ve ever received,” she said.

During the holidays, the Elks distribute food baskets, which include such staple items as milk, eggs and cereal. They also give away toys to needy children, and gift certificates to teens. The funds for these items are raised solely through individual and lodge donations.

“The Elks are a generous bunch,” said Sem. “They always come through.”

As to the reasons why donations didn’t fall off this year, Sem indicated that it might have something to do with the constituency of the lodge itself.

“The fact that a lot of them are older, they understand,” she said. “They’ve gone through tough times. They can kind of relate to that.”

Oak Harbor resident Digger O’Dell, who organizes bell ringers around North Whidbey for the Salvation Army, said that another reason for the good showing this year has something to do with the character of the people who live on the island.

“Whidbey Island is different,” said O’Dell. “Because it’s a people oriented area, the people have come through.”

Last year, island bell ringers raised a total of $33,600. O’Dell said that so far, on a day by day basis, they’re about $800 ahead of last year.

“I’m hoping that we’re going to be a little bit ahead,” he added regarding this season’s earnings. “We’ve got a really good group overseeing this thing.”

It is the make-up of this group that helps to raise money, said O’Dell. When so many people see familiar faces ringing bells, he added, they feel safe in donating, knowing it’s in the right hands and going to the right place.

“The whole thing in a nutshell is that these people are from every walk of life that you can think of,” O’Dell said of the bell ringers.

“This is an honest effort and it’s going to the place that it’s supposed to,” he added. “It’s the trust, number one, in the Salvation Army. There’s never been a bad word about the Salvation Army. There’s no tomfoolery whatsoever. Their integrity is not to be questioned.”

Bill Nance, executive director of Help House in Oak Harbor, which distributes food baskets during the holiday season, said that donations this year for the Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives were on par with years past, despite a slow start.

“Right after 911 we did see a drop off, but normally for us that’s kind of a slow time of year anyway,” Nance said, adding that once the holidays rolled around, things began to pick up.

“Once again, the community of Oak Harbor and North Whidbey Island comes through,” he said.

Help House is a year-around food bank run funded predominantly by local donations, with some extra help from state grants and the United Way. This year, the organization gave out 600 Thanksgiving baskets and, so far, about 550 Christmas baskets, which include turkeys, stuffing, potatoes and other holiday fare.

“Here, for us, it’s just been a great year once again,” said Nance.

Some organizations are not so equivocal about their success this year. A recent press release from the Island County United Way, dated Dec. 3, declares that the organization is extending its annual fundraising campaign due to setbacks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It also states that, due to the economic downturn following the attacks, corporate sponsors are reducing their contributions.

Despite this dour forecast, Jean Salls at the Whidbey Island United Way said that she hasn’t noticed any downturn in the spirit of giving, at least locally.

“We have found that people have been as generous as ever,” said Salls. “It’s been amazing. It’s been a good year.”

Because the proceeds raised by the United Way go to organizations rather than individuals, Salls said they aren’t as dependent on the holidays as other fundraisers. Nevertheless, she added that lots of people on the island have been calling up this year, asking how they can help. When this happens, they hook people up to agencies that need volunteers.

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