In a celebration of performing together again and hearts full of music and giving, performers and community members set out to share their best holiday cheer in support of the Wadena Empty Stocking Fund.

With 30 acts performed live from the Wadena-Deer Creek Commons and on KWAD, community members enjoyed Christmas carols from group choirs, soloists, band ensembles and pianists at the 95th talent program on Dec. 8. Each of the talents added a musical note of hope as more children and families received presents and meals for the Christmas season with the donations pouring in. The evening started with about $6,000 in donations, hit over $8,000 within 20 minutes and ended at about $18,000.

A small group of community members enjoyed the musical talents at the start of the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. 
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
A small group of community members enjoyed the musical talents at the start of the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

The talent program was broadcast online in 2020, and this year Laurie Anne Runge and her daughter Elisa Mae Runge came excited for their first live performance together. They first attended the Empty Stocking program in 2019 and shared their talents in the online program last year.

Laurie Anne Runge, left, and Elisa Mae Runge, right, played two songs in their first live performance debut at the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. The two have dreamed of this day when they could perform together.  
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
Laurie Anne Runge, left, and Elisa Mae Runge, right, played two songs in their first live performance debut at the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. The two have dreamed of this day when they could perform together. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

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“It was a dream come true. I’ve been singing since I was 4 and I’ve always wanted to be a Mom,” Laurie Anne said. She and her husband Kent adopted Elisa Mae—originally from Ethiopia—when Kent turned 50 years old. “I just kept praying and praying she would enjoy music in some form.”

On a night of dreams turning to reality for them, one dearly loved person was missing: Kent, who passed away suddenly in October. He had kidney and congestive heart failure. If you’d like to support the Runge family, you can make a donation on the GoFundMe website.

“He would have loved to have been here, … and he loved hearing her play,” Laurie Anne said. “He would take his naps sometimes on the couch to her practicing.”

The two’s talents are only bursting for more with Elisa Mae playing the piano and flute, and planning cello and guitar lessons. She already has the guitar in her room and hopes to put it to good use, a lesson that her dad was going to teach her. Elisa Mae, 11 years old, started playing the piano in kindergarten, on her way to learning the violin which turned into the “bigger” plan of playing the cello.

From their bag of Christmas music, the Runges performed “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Silver Bells.” The songs are a blend of piano highlights, vocal fun and Christmas memories.

“(Silver bells) just puts in a very Christmas-y picture in my mind, the fun part of shopping for your family or whatever, and the lights. And not that we actually get to hear silver bells but it’s in my brain that way,” Laurie Anne said. “We love to sing, and we sing all through, well every day, not just the holidays.”

As a member of the Wadena Area Community Band, Lisa Weniger plays the jingle bells. She also directed three band ensembles as the Wadena-Deer Creek 5-12 band director.
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
As a member of the Wadena Area Community Band, Lisa Weniger plays the jingle bells. She also directed three band ensembles as the Wadena-Deer Creek 5-12 band director. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

Here come the trumpet sounds with Ella Stroeing, Mercedes Schulz, Josephine Pinnella, Madison Carston and Isabelle Larson sharing the music of "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Jingle Bells."
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
Here come the trumpet sounds with Ella Stroeing, Mercedes Schulz, Josephine Pinnella, Madison Carston and Isabelle Larson sharing the music of "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Jingle Bells." Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

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The Runges performed the songs twice as Laurie Anne’s microphone didn’t come on the first time. Radio listeners also didn’t catch all of the larger choir and band performances due to microphone issues.

Laurie Anne and Elisa Mae are looking forward to sharing more of their musical talents together, like the challenging “I Saw Three Ships” at next year’s Empty Stocking talent program. The Staples Area Men's Choir, Shannon Hagen, new piano students, Kathy Harrison, Marilyn Uselman and Kim Uselman, and a combo church choir lead by Deb Haraldson also made their first performances at the program this year.

Marilynn Uselman, left, and Kathy Harrison, right, smile while singing "One Small Child" at the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. 
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
Marilynn Uselman, left, and Kathy Harrison, right, smile while singing "One Small Child" at the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

The musical talents continued with Shannon Hagen singing "All is Well" at the start of the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. 
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
The musical talents continued with Shannon Hagen singing "All is Well" at the start of the Empty Stocking talent program on Dec. 8, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

At the helm of the Immanuel Lutheran Church choir, Deb Haraldson directs the group in a harmonious performance of "O' Holy Night" on Dec. 8, 2021.  
Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal
At the helm of the Immanuel Lutheran Church choir, Deb Haraldson directs the group in a harmonious performance of "O' Holy Night" on Dec. 8, 2021. Rebecca Mitchell / Pioneer Journal

“The sharing of your talent embodies the true spirit of Christmas and you have helped many children and families have a better holiday,” said Diane Peters, Empty Stocking Fund talent chairman, in a letter to the Pioneer Journal.

You can give monetary and toy donations to the Empty Stocking Fund at local tree trimmer sites, including Central Minnesota Credit Union, 1776 Clothing Company, Hometown Crafts, Merickel’s Ace Hardware, West Central Telephone, Pioneer Journal, and Wadena State Bank. Toys for boys 3-7 years old and girls 6-7 years old are especially needed. The distribution is Dec. 16.

The Wadena Empty Stocking Fund supports families in Menahga, Sebeka, Verndale, Bertha-Hewitt and Wadena with gifts, hats, gloves, hygiene items and a meal.