BLOOMINGTON — Steve Wilder and his students at Olympia Middle School are just what the doctor ordered to cure donor fatigue.
Contributions to charities nationwide were declining even before the Christmas season began. Donors were stretched thin after giving to relief efforts to help victims from several natural disasters, most notably Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast region.
The trend had officials with Central Illinois charities wondering if donations to holiday fund-raising efforts would be harder to come by than prying money from Ebenezer Scrooge.
But in some cases, those fears are vanishing like Marley's ghost.
Contributions arrived slower than usual and some charities, like the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots and Adopt A Family, still need help. Organizers think that's due, in part, to competition with hurricane relief.
But others agencies, including the Clare House food pantry and The Baby Fold, are reporting record years for fund-raising. People like the kids at the school where Wilder is principal are the reason.
Wilder encouraged students to donate to Clare House's once-a-year food drive in November. The goal was 2,005 cans. Divided into three schoolwide groups, they raised 2,009. True to his word, Wilder had the initial of the winning team shaved into his hair during a school assembly. His hair also was dyed blue and white, the school colors, and he donned a dress — one of four "fates" the kids could choose for their principal.
"They all got a kick out of it," Wilder said.
For Wilder, the effort was a serious one. As a boy growing up in Bloomington, he often saw long lines outside the house that serves as the food panty in the 700 block of East Washington Street.
"It always caught my eye," Wilder said.
In the end, Clare House collected about 70 tons of food — not including a late contribution of two tons of pasta from Biaggi's corporate office in Bloomington.
The Baby Fold recently announced its annual Festival of Trees in mid-November raised a record $135,000. That was $10,000 more than the goal and $25,000 more than last year. The Baby Fold serves more than 3,000 children and 750 families at three campuses in Normal.
Harriet Steinbach, development director of the Bloomington-based Salvation Army, hopes guardian angels come through for her agency, too. The annual holiday Red Kettle Campaign is even with last year's donations. But the annual direct mail drive is lagging, she said, and food donations to the Salvation Army have dropped drastically.
Last year by this time, volunteers were hustling in the agency's gymnasium to organize donated food for about 1,000 families. The agency spent about $8,000 to buy turkeys in 2004. This year, Steinbach estimates the Salvation Army may have to spend $16,000 to $20,000 to buy food for Christmas. That's precious cash it needs to carry on other pro-grams throughout the year, she said.
Salvation Army's Bloomington office channeled $70,000 in donations to Hurricane Katrina relief. But Steinbach said no one can be certain if that's the reason contributions this Christmas are slower than usual.
"I don't know if anyone has a sense why," she said.
Matt Drat, coordinator of the McLean County Toys for Tots, also is worried.
His group knew it needed to make up for contributions the national Toys for Tots usually distributes to local organizations. Instead, the national focus this year is on sending toys to Louisiana, Florida and Texas. In response, Drat lengthened the local collection period by a week. Toys can be dropped off at Toys R Us and Eastland Mall in the Twin Cities through Christmas weekend. His goal is to collect 25,000 toys, which would be a record. Results won't be known until after the holidays.
"This is one year when everyone's resources are being stretched to the limit," he said.
Donations also have been sluggish to Adopt A Family, a program in its 25th year that matches needy kids and families served by The Children's Foundation with donors who provide gifts or the money to buy them. About 800 people were helped in past seasons.
But Stacie Killian, president of the foundation's auxiliary and chairwoman of the event, said Adopt A Family may reach 900 people this season.
"We've run out of donors," Killian said. "We've had people say, "Our people are feeling tapped out. They've been involved with this organization or they sent relief to (Hurricane) Katrina." The bottom line is they are all good causes. "There are only so many things a person can do."