Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wood River Valley embraces charitable causes

Organizations make Christmas possible for many families

Express Staff Writer

Janine Bear, Calysta Phillips and Sara Gorham, left to right, assemble holiday food and gift baskets at the Hailey Armory building and spread Christmas cheer one family at a time. Photo by Willy Cook

Christmas is the time for giving—a philosophy several charitable organizations in the Wood River Valley take very seriously.

In the valley, there are dozens of philanthropic or-ganizations, so many, in fact, that the Sun Valley area is perennially dubbed as the charity capitol of Idaho.

Over the past few years, The Family Connection, St. Luke's Wood River Foundation and the Sawtooth Board of Realtors have embraced the local community, and in doing so have helped spread Christmas cheer throughout the year.

"I feel like Santa all day long. In fact, I don't know how he does it. This is exhausting," said Julianne Fischman, director of The Family Connection Project in Hailey. "I don't get paid in cash. I get paid all day long," in the smiles on the faces of those The Family Connection helps.

Two years ago, the Sawtooth Board of Realtors Community Foundation made a few phone calls and organized a countywide Christmas drive.

"We were concerned with overlap and wanted to help streamline the process," said Janine Bear, a real estate agent who volunteers for the Community Foun-dation.

Local charities then began working in collaboration with one another. Now, families in need only have to fill out one application, which is then distributed to charities throughout the area, Bear said.

The Community Foundation helped to expand and build upon a tradition of giving that was established in the early 1980s by the Ketchum and Hailey Rotary clubs.

The Community Foundation offers "holiday bas-kets" to local families in need, and has done so for the past four years. The baskets are just one aspect of the foundation's giving.

"This month, we found out a family had been living without electricity, so we helped them get their power turned back on," Bear said.

In addition, the Community Foundation helped raise money for a new roof on Blaine Manor, the county-supported senior center in Hailey.

So far this year, the foundation has provided 300 families in the Wood River Valley with food and gifts.

"Food baskets are priority one for us," Bear said. After ample food donations are ensured for a family, "we then make sure each child gets at least one gift as well. We expect to receive calls from emergency fami-lies right up until Christmas Eve."

"Emergency families" are families in need of basic essentials but have not applied for assistance.

Bear described one family in which both parents work two jobs and attend school. Two weeks ago, the family car broke down, and the repair costs wiped out the family's Christmas budget. This is where the Community Foundation comes in. At the last minute, it was able to assist the family with food and gifts.

The Family Connection is a year-round charitable organization in Hailey that matches needy families in Blaine County with warm-hearted sponsors. The entire endeavor is anonymous and although sponsors never meet the families they help, thanks are often given in the form of correspondence, be it in the form of letters of gratitude, or through pictures painted by grateful children, Fischman said.

"We are the gift that gives every single month, but during Christmas many of our sponsors ask their fami-lies for additional 'wish lists,'" Fischman said.

Throughout the year, contributions include daily amenities such as clothing, food and dish soap—com-mon household amenities many take for granted.

Often, when Fischman delivers a first box of dona-tions to a new family, "they burst into tears."

"One family said to me, 'Christmas has come early this year,' and this was in July," she said.

This year alone, The Family Connection has pro-vided beds to 21 children who, prior to the organiza-tion's donation, were literally sleeping on the floor, Fischman said.

St. Luke's Wood River Foundation is another valley organization that provides charity and assistance all year long. The foundation—a nonprofit organization that works to fund and promote quality healthcare services—in conjunction with St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center has donated more than $100,000 to community programs and other projects, said Tanya Keim, the hospital's director of community relations.

Each year, a percentage of the hospital's total oper-ating budget is set aside for worthy causes. In addition, the Wood River Foundation contributes up to 10 per-cent of money raised throughout the year to health-related organizations, Keim said.

The spirit of giving and the invaluable contribution such charity makes to families in need can best be summed up by one of the families that benefited from the community's generosity. A letter, written to a con-tributor of Family Connection and addressed to "Dear Sponsoring Angels," reads: "When your first box was delivered, I was overwhelmed. I had forgotten how much I needed and missed these ordinary items. I felt a cloud had been lifted."

The letter went on to say, "You are a true blessing for me, and may your kindness be returned 100 times over."

One must think, perhaps, this is what Christmas is really about. It's a time when we all can embrace that inherent desire to take part in something so very no-ble.

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