LACONIA — The Lakes Region enjoys an enviable reputation as a collection of small communities filled with people who have big hearts, a place where hundreds eagerly volunteer to help meet the needs of children, families and other fellow citizens in need of assistance.
And the volunteers have fun while putting in those many hours, knowing that they are part of a larger community which shares a sense of responsibility for the well-being of all its members, but most especially for children, said Sandy Marshall, who chairs the Greater Lakes Region Children’s Auction, now in its 36th year.
The annual event will have a new location this year at the Belknap Mall and will be held Dec. 5-9.
Last year the auction, which is carried live on Lakes Region Community TV, raised $489,435, for local charities, with $276,267 coming from Pub Mania, the 24-hour bar stool challenge at Patrick’s Pub in Gilford, which has raised more than $1.3 million for the auction since it started nine years ago.
"It is truly an honor to be part of such a community and to watch over 1,500 volunteers between the auction and Pub Mania," said Marshall.
“It’s great for families with young children who can contribute whatever they can afford as auction items and have their children become involved in the community and learn the value of working to help others,” said Marshall.
In addition to smaller organizations and families helped throughout the 35 years of the Greater Lakes Region Children's Auction, annual contributions are given to many community-based organizations throughout central New Hampshire. These include: The Boys and Girls Club of the Lakes Region, Laconia Police Relief Association, Health First Family Care of Franklin, Salvation Army, Lakes Region Child Care Services, Mrs. Santa Fund - Alton, St Vincent de Paul, Tapply-Thompson Community Center in Bristol, Tilton-Northfield-Sanbornton Santa Fund and more.
Local companies support the Greater Lakes Region Children's Auction by providing cash donations, sponsorships, and staff, allowing employees to serve the community at the event during what would normally be work hours. CruCon Cruise Outlet, Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion, MetroCast, LRPA TV, Meredith Village Savings Bank and many other organizations contribute support.
The auction is entirely volunteer run and buzzes with activity as phone bank workers cheer at over-bids, children dance and workers fly around the room. Items at the auction range from gift certificates to local businesses, sports collectibles, concert and sport tickets, autographed memorabilia, furniture, vacations, home décor, children's toys, electronics and holiday gifts.
Raising funds for the auction has become a year-round activity in the Lakes Region, thanks in large part to Pub Mania, where 30 teams compete to outdo each other with a variety of activities, ranging from comedy shows to cribbage games.
Marshall said that the auction itself and Pub Mania are the envy of many other communities across the country, and that people from those areas are constantly in contact with both her and Allan Beetle of Patrick’s Pub, trying to find out how they can replicate the success of the auction and Pub Mania.
The auction is not the only program from the Lakes Region that has been adopted by others. Got Lunch Laconia, which started six years ago as a summer food program for low-income families in Laconia, has now spread to at least a dozen other communities in New Hampshire.
Evidence of the high degree of concern and caring in the Lakes Region will be on display this weekend at both the St. Vincent DePaul food bank on Union Avenue, where some 400 Thanksgiving baskets will be distributed, as well as at Opechee Park, where the 13th annual Turkey Plunge will be raising funds to support the good works of the local Salvation Army.
Don Morrisey, who has been organizing the Turkey Plunge since it’s inception, said he’s lived in other, larger communities and seen lots of similar charitable efforts. But he said that the Lakes Region is special in that it has such a wide range of involvement from so many different clubs, organizations and individuals in such a relatively small area.
“There’s a level of enthusiasm and participation which makes it unique,” said Morrissey. This year’s goal is to raise $10,000 for the Salvation Army, which will bring the total to nearly $100,000 since the creation of the event, which features teams of swimsuit-wearing participants jumping into chilly Lake Opechee.
Erika Johnson at Saint Vincent de Paul said the organization is still looking for more turkeys to distribute with their Thanksgiving baskets, which will be handed out Saturday morning and will include all the fixings for a complete Thanksgiving feast.
She has been working along with other volunteers since the food pantry opened 26 years ago and feels fortunate to have worked in the Laconia area.
“We have such a supportive community. People have been wonderful, stepping up to the plate to help us every time we’ve reached out.” Johnson says.
Volunteers working with her all those years are still there, Jo Carignan, Jeanette Buckley and Betty Gonyer.
Carignan, who heads the food pantry, said that the first year 27 families received food baskets and the number now is 400 with as many as 1,500 people benefiting.
She and her late husband, Richard, started volunteering because they were both committed to a tithing practice of donating 10 percent of their income to charity.
“We didn’t have enough money, but I did have a pickup truck. We decided to use that for pickups and deliveries to the food pantry and that would be our contribution,” said Carignan. She spends 30 to 40 hours a week working in the food pantry.
Also helping to make a difference is the Santa Fund of the Lakes Region, which has a 40-year history of helping out during the holiday season and, prior to the advent of the Children’s Auction, was the major fundraiser for holiday season assistance.
Kim Lacasse, co-chair of the Santa Fund, said that the organization recently completed its initial distribution of warm winter clothing such as coats, hats and mittens and handed out 600 coats.
“We’re still filling orders, because the need is still there,” said Lacasse, who adds that the Laconia Fire Department recently contributed 80 coats.
In 2012, some 248 coats were distributed and that has nearly tripled in the last two years. “We’re seeing lots of new people, non-working as well as the working poor that we’re able to help,” says Lacasse.
She said the needs are real and that she is overwhelmed by the generosity of the community in responding.
“The kids we serve wouldn’t survive without the kind of help we get,” says Lacasse.
Another Laconia tradition of more than 40 years is Christmas Village, which will be held this year from Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 at the Laconia Community Center.
Begun in 1975 by Dick Tapply, then director of Parks and Recreation, who followed the example set by his father in Bristol, the tradition has been sustained ever since by the Bolduc brothers – Armand and Ernie – and their friend Bob Hamel, who each year have led the team of volunteers, including some 60 to 70 elves, that constructs the village and provides its hospitality.
It's a lot work," Hamel said. "But, it's all worth when you see those kids come through the curtain and their faces light up."
He estimates that some 6,000 man hours are required to set up and take down the village. In addition, decorating and stocking the village costs about $8,000 a year, a significant share of which is born by a number of anonymous donors as well as a contribution from the Children's Auction.
Thanksgiving is also a special time for giving in the Lakes Region. Both Laconia and Meredith have long-standing traditions of free community Thanksiving dinners.
In Laconia, the Congregational Church hosts the annual Hazel Duke dinner while in Meredith the annual Mae Hart dinner, which was started by the matriarch of Hart’s Turkey Farm, will be held at the Meredith Community Center.
George’s Diner in Meredith will host a free Thanksgiving meal and expects to serve about 150 people.
The largest free meal provider in the Lakes Region on Thanksgiving is Michael Soucy of the Soda Shoppe in Laconia, who hopes to feed as many as 500 people Thursday.
In the past, Soucy has averaged 375-400 people at his annual event.
Soucy noted that lot of people have no families or don't have the means to celebrate Thanksgiving, so he devotes 36 hours of his time to prep and cook turkey dinner with all the fixings - gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, squash, cranberry sauce, rolls, drinks and homemade pies for dessert.
"Between myself and all my purveyors," said Soucy, "they all donate items to me. People in the community donate. I just got a notice from Michelle at the Looney Bin that she's donating 10 turkeys. People make desserts. I usually give between $8,000 and $10,000 to the Great Lakes Region Children's Auction."