DECATUR — When people tried to tell David MacDonna what the annual WSOY Community Food Drive is like, they used superlatives.
Then the Decatur Salvation Army’s new director of development and communication found himself voicing those same words and not very far into his day unloading cars and directing traffic Friday at the Airport Plaza Kroger store.
“Nobody was exaggerating,” MacDonna said. “It’s incredible how people come together to serve their neighbors in Macon County.
“I have never seen anything like it.”
Actually, neither had anyone else involved with 12th annual event as the total amount of food and money collected reached a record of 820,565 pounds/dollars and counting, all to help stock food pantries at the Salvation Army and Decatur Catholic Charities.
“We can’t end it any better than that,” said Brian Byers, vice president of development for Neuhoff Media, to wrap up the daylong, live radio broadcast. Afterward, he Tweeted, “Humbled. Proud. Speechless.”
The goal was 750,000 dollars/pounds.
Driving the total upward throughout the day, as always, was the contest among schools for prize money provided by sponsors, including Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur Back & Neck Center, Dale’s Southlake Pharmacy, First Christian Church, Herald & Review, Jones & Thomas, Skeff Distributing, Team Soy, Ticket-N-Trips and WAND-TV.
The unofficial winner was St. Patrick Catholic School, which not only blew away its competition but also became the first school in food drive history to surpass the 100,000-pound/dollar mark.
Unofficial totals were 103,081 pounds for St. Patrick School, worth $2,500 in prize money; 80,243 pounds for St. Teresa High School, for $1,500; 71,407 pounds for Our Lady of Lourdes School, for $1,000; 60,272 pounds for Mount Zion High School, for $750; and 36,522 for Holy Family School, for $500.
“We had 42 schools contribute, and 12 had over 10,000 pounds,” said the food drive’s schools coordinator Pete Vercellino, co-owner of Ticket-N-Trips. “The Decatur community stepped up to do the right thing once again, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
This is the eighth time St. Patrick has collected first-place prize money and the seventh year it won the school contest all by itself. The last time was 2011.
Herald & Review archives show the school surpassed 20,000 pounds in 2004 and 28,000 pounds in 2005 before breaking the 40,000-pound mark the past seven years. The school’s tally last year was 56,187 pounds.
“Everyone, our parish, our faculty, our staff and our students, worked very hard,” Principal Jan Sweet said. “Even our 3- and 4-year-olds brought in some cans. It teaches kids at a young age that you give when it’s needed.”
Thirty-six of the school’s 170 students, from its third, fourth and fifth grades, came out to Kroger on Friday morning to sing “We are Marching in the Light of God” in English and Swahili.
“It’s a little more than I expected,” said fifth-grader Seth Baldwin, who said he had not seen the community food drive in action before. “Looks like we’re going to collect a lot of food!”
Large donations from the business community, including a $100,000 matching grant from the Howard Buffett Foundation and $116,000 from ADM, were also a big factor in this year’s success.
Smaller gifts added up as well.
St. Mary’s Hospital brought in its 30-foot disaster command post trailer, filled to the countertops with food, for a total of 13,000 pounds/dollars.
“We try to raise our contribution by 1,000 pounds each year,” said Bill Wood, coordinator of emergency services. “A lot of people are going through some tough times, and we’re all about giving back to the community.”
Macon County employees also got into the act collectively for the first time by contributing more than 5,000 pounds/dollars as the result of a departmental competition. The winner was the Highway Department.
“We thought it would be a good morale booster, and it was,” said county board Chairman Jay Dunn.
Decatur’s food pantries need the drive to succeed because the demand for food hasn’t gotten any smaller.
MacDonna said the Salvation Army helped more than 28,000 people in the past year, up from 18,241 three years ago. Meanwhile, for the fiscal year ending June 30, Catholic Charities assisted nearly 11,000 or 14 percent more than the previous year.
“I couldn’t have been happier with the weather, people just kept giving, and it’s been a tremendous day,” said Robin Murray, community services supervisor at Catholic Charities.
This year’s success will likely allow other charities to benefit, as did the 744,000 pounds/dollars collected one year ago. Of that total, 75,000 pounds were shared with Good Samaritan Inn, the Judy Mason Thanksgiving Basket Project, Northeast Community Fund and Oasis Day Center.
Debbie Bogle, executive director of the United Way of Decatur and Mid-Illinois, said more than 250 volunteers operated the food drive from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday.
“This is way more people than we’ve ever had before,” Bogle said. “I think every year people hear about it or stop by and want to be a part of it, year after year, and it keeps building.”
Among the volunteers was Mike Stewart, campus assistant at Imboden Creek Health Services, who was participating in his sixth consecutive community food drive.
“This is needed, and it’s a need I can fill,” Stewart said.
Familiar faces in the volunteer ranks included Decatur City Manager Ryan McCrady, Heritage Behavioral Health Center CEO Diana Knaebe and Bruce Jeffery, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Decatur, who lent a hand from noon to 2 p.m. with several members of his staff.
“About 80 percent of our membership is low-income, so it’s safe to say they benefit directly from this effort,” Jeffery said.
Volunteer crews also came from organizations as varied as Consociate Dansig and Macon Resources Inc. and included more than two dozen students from Our Lady of Lourdes, who needed more than an hour to unload the school’s two 17-foot U-Haul trucks.
“I’m glad we’ve been able to keep up this good work that involves kids in all grades,” said Ashley Burgener, an eighth-grader. “It’s also great to come out and see how we fit in with what the rest of the community is doing.”