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Empty stockings filled, but just barely

Empty stockings will be filled this year in Wadena County, and empty stomachs satisfied, but until two large donations came in at the last minute, it wasn't certain it would turn out that way.

In its 80th year, the monetary need for a charitable program designed to make sure no one goes without food or gifts has never been higher. Empty Stocking Fund chairman Randy Mohs said more families than ever needed support this year.

"There were 20 more families [requesting Empty Stocking Fund assistance] this year than last year, so the money had to go way further," Mohs said.

Empty Stocking Fund is a local charity that has been ensuring since 1926 that families who are down on their luck can escape the perils of hunger and sacrifice for one night -- Christmas -- and have a full spread on the dinner table and below the Christmas tree. The money is donated locally and spent locally in Wadena County, and distributed around the county and in neighboring communities like Bertha, Hewitt, Bluffton and Deer Creek. Recipients are nominated and pre-screened by teachers, social service workers and church groups to make sure only those in need receive help.

To go one step further, Mohs said, one of the ESF's most tireless workers, Hydee Wright, made sure each family was contacted to verify need. Some, Mohs said, revealed they had more need than reporting agencies had indicated. Others, he said, told callers they didn't need assistance anymore. Those, Mohs said, are the most satisfying: when families who have been in need for years says they're OK now, and the gift of Empty Stocking Fund can be better spent on others.

Each family served by Empty Stocking Fund gets:

• A Christmas meal, plus extra groceries for the season based on how much was donated.

• Clothing, from jeans and shirts to jackets and snow-suits. Often, teachers will indicate a certain student is lacking proper winter wear, and that is provided based on need.

• Special needs, as indicated by referral agents and as the budget allows.

• Quilts, blankets or afghans, as donated by local groups and also based on need.

• Every kid gets a toy.

In fact, Mohs said, donations this year included a surplus of toys, almost to the detriment of other areas.

"The toys are way up this year," he said. "Many, many, many more than there have been in the past."

Despite that, monetary donations have lagged. While a Christmas talent show broadcast locally on KWAD/KNSP radio has been a constant producer, corporate and business donations have lagged in recent years.

A fund-raising goal was set at $16,000 this year, equal to last year's donations. But with the need up about 20 percent this year, Mohs worried that wouldn't be enough.

Up until last week, the total was around $10,000. Two large, last minute donations from the Rosemary and Harry Harrison Family Foundation for $2,000 and the Forum Communications Fund for $4,000 covered all of the deficit. In fact, the gap was filled quickly, and donations topped $16,600 as of Monday.

Still, that barely covers this year's need, Mohs said, and the ESF has routinely carried a small surplus into the winter, spring and summer months, often assisting families in need, such as those who suffer house fires or other tragedies.

Mohs said reaching this year's goal was a team effort, and he praised the radio station for its help, Pioneer Journal employees for organizing, shopping and distributing the gifts, service clubs for their help, and Diane Peters for organizing the annual talent show, not to mention all of the individuals and groups that donated goods and money.

Those wishing to make a donation to brighten the holidays for someone in need can still do so by mailing or dropping off a check to the Wadena Pioneer Journal. Mohs said a priority for next year's drive is to establish 501(c)3 tax-deductible charity status, so businesses that have stopped contributing can again do so with tax benefits.