GILFORD — Over the past 11 years, Pub Mania at Patrick’s Pub & Eatery was billed as “the world’s greatest barstool challenge." And with good reason.

It raised $2.3 million for the Greater Lakes Region Children’s Auction – frequently more than half of what what was collected each December to benefit area children and families.

This year, an army of fundraising activities – which can be individually designed and shared online – will replace Pub Mania as part of a new, larger campaign: It’s For the Kids Community Challenge.

The idea is to keep the fun of the barstool challenge, just without the barstools and wall-to-wall people that were a hallmark of the event at Patrick's.

Adapting to COVID-19 means big changes, especially in the realm of fundraising. Pub Mania became a Lakes Region tradition chocked with antics, ad libbing and frenzied arts and crafts contests between contestants perched on bar stools, often in their pajamas during the wee hours. It will now give way to something more pandemic-proof: a decentralized style of raising money which enlists the power of social media, high-powered online platforms and professional fundraising coaching.

Organizers hope the new It’s For the Kids Community Challenge will attract more teams and newcomers to come up with contagious ways to raise money for a network of large and small charities, many accustomed to delivering services on shoestring budgets, but with resounding community support.

“It floors me how much we raise every year.  We’re spoiled in a way that leads me to be optimistic.” said Jaimie Sousa, who chairs the Greater Lakes Region Children’s Auction. “Every year we worry we won’t make as much. The way the community has always come forward leads me to be optimistic, even in times like these. We all knew we weren’t going to be able to do things the same way we did in the past” because of the coronavirus.

In New Hampshire, a state with relatively low transmission and infection rates, cases are expected to peak again this winter, when holiday events and annual fundraisers are in full swing. Festivities will be scaled down, canceled or moved online, hopefully with the same degree of donor appeal.

'The funds are critical'

That means the Greater Lakes Region Children’s Auction will face an unprecedented challenge: How to equal or exceed – in a time of masks, social distancing and smaller gatherings – the $561,400 it collected last year to support causes the region depends on – nonprofit organizations such as The Boys and Girls Club, St. Vincent dePaul Food Panty, the Santa Fund  – 75 in all. When donations trickled in after last year’s event, the bounty exceeded $600,000, Sousa said.

"The funds are critical," said Chris Emond, director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central NH, which provides wraparound services to a roughly 100 area children after school, plus another 60 to 80 in childcare.  The $60,000 the clubs receive yearly from the children's auction goes to funding staff and providing financial aid to families who can't afford to pay for the after-school service, which also serves meals and snacks. While fewer children can be accommodated now on site because of current social-distancing guidelines, the need in greater Laconia keeps increasing. Now "we have to hire someone whose entire job it is to clean," Emond said.

Many organizations rely on the proceeds to furnish a chunk of their annual operating budgets, especially the smaller ones. They provide food, clothing, shelter and hygienic needs and fund educational and recreational opportunities for children and families who could not otherwise afford them

Janet Brough, a board member of the Santa Fund, said $25,000 of the $35,000 the charity spends to buy winter clothing for 650-750 elementary school children each year comes from the Children’s Auction. “If we didn’t get that we couldn’t do what we do,” she said.

GOT LUNCH! Laconia provides groceries to families for 10 weeks during the summer, serving 527 kids who might otherwise go without healthy meals. The program depends on the Children’s Auction for $35,000 of its annual $70,000 to $80,000 budget, said Rev. Paula Gile of Laconia United Church of Christ, a board member.

“All of our thoughts are, can we transition and have similar results? It’s a lot of money and the organizations and families that receive the benefit are going to need at least as much in the coming years,” said Allan Beetle, chairman of It’s for the Kids Community Challenge, and owner of Patrick’s Pub & Eatery.

Even if people are unsure about the rules change, teams from Pub Mania are resolved to march past high marks.

 “We’ve got the right people involved, the right captains and the right mindset – people are pretty passionate about it,” said Andrea Morin, a fifth-grade teacher at Elm Street School and captain of the Winnepesaukee Yacht Club Diving Ducks team. “It’s for the kids. I have my chin up and think we can do it.”

This year’s goal is $2,500 for new teams, said Beetle. Last year’s teams collected $7,500 on average. In 2019, over $70,000 of Pub Mania’s $355,453 total donations occurred online – a percentage Beetle expects will jump.

Upping the effort

Morin and her partner, Jason Boudreau, are hoping to morph their fundraising efforts for 2020 into a combination of bingo over Zoom, and raffle ticket sales for a scratch ticket board they post at the Lion’s Den restaurant near the Gilford town docks.  In the past, the raffle has brought in $1,000 and cost them $150 to $200 in scratch tickets. Morin and Boudreau are diehard fundraisers. During the 10 weeks after COVID shutdowns in mid-March, they held Friday night bingo over Zoom, which netted $10,000 for local causes that included the NH Food Pantry and financial support for first responders. Participants picked up official bingo cards at their garage.

The essence of the original Pub Mania may not be as easy to duplicate. The hour-long competitions over the course of 24 hours provided raucous fun and stoked holiday spirits. Last year, Pub Mania included Ugly Sweater, Santa Head, Santa Belly and Naughty Hour contests – events that might thrive over FaceTime or Zoom, but without the giddy, real-time, in-person banter, hugs and high-fives. Gone will be shoulder-to-shoulder reveling.

But organizers of the new It’s For the Kids Community Challenge hope the critical goal of the Children’s Auction – to fund essential programs that provide wellbeing, opportunities and joy to children – will fuel and sustain donations and interest.

Volunteer dedication remains – even if the venues for gathering money are shifting.  Last year, Pub Mania mustered 31 fundraising teams composed of families, friends and co-workers. Yesterday veteran team leaders met by Zoom, and today the website, www.childrensauction.com, opens for participants and new teams to sign up, receive fundraising, publicity and social media coaching, and to brainstorm new activities and socially-distanced events.  “The sky’s the limit,” Beetle said.

In the past, successful and popular fundraisers have ranged from LRGH’s golf tournament to raffles of big-ticket items, and yard sales by businesses and teams.  Last year, Harley Davidson’s “Iron Butts” team raised $40,932 by raffling a motorcycle.

Most of the money the auction amasses yearly comes from donations of $100 or less, Beetle said. Café Déjà Vu on Court Street has been a leader in holding smaller, year-long events that have included spaghetti dinners, live bands, comedy shows and gift bag raffles. One currently offers a chance to win $100 in scratch tickets for $5, said Café Déjà Vu team co-captain Tony Felch, a Laconia city councilor.

“It’s really about being creative, coming up with win-win fundraisers. It’s not overwhelming,” Beetle said. 

Arts and crafts competitions – a staple of the Barstool Challenge – can still occur over Zoom. Participants can work at home with construction paper, toothpicks, wax Wiki-Sticks, twizzle sticks, pipe cleaners, Play Doh, tinsel and glue and display and judge their creations remotely, even if close inspections aren’t possible beyond what can be seen on screen. 

Croquet matches, water-pistol or water-balloon contests or canoe and kayak relays and races can drum up contributions during the summer. Year-round options include "Jeans Day" at the office, “where everyone kicks in a couple of bucks every Friday to wear jeans,” Beetle said.

The challenge is for each individual team member to raise $250 by Dec. 10. In the past, many eclipsed that mark, Beetle said.

Last year, Diving Ducks team member Judi Rogato raised $5,500 by knitting hats all year long. She sold them for $25 on Facebook, at craft fairs, and sometimes at the beach while knitting furiously.

“I was knitting constantly, constantly.  It was such a good feeling,” said Rogato, even if the activity was all-consuming.  “Now, with COVID, it’s tough to get out there and sell them so I’ll try to sell the remaining hats on Craigslist and Facebook.”

The Pub Shuffle continues

Not all of the auction traditions back by Patrick’s Pub will fade. The Pub Shuffle will start after Labor Day and continue through October. From 4:30 to 5:30 p.m., walkers will each pay $10 to trek a two-mile round trip between the pub and Varney Point.

The Shuffle has been a perennial hit with Taylor Community residents, Beetle said, even though the retirement community never wanted to mount a barstool team.

In the past, walkers returned to Patrick’s for a complimentary cocktail and a raffle, which will now occur over Zoom, when they are home. Likewise, cocktails will be cooked up in personal kitchens, family rec rooms and man caves.

Some Pub Mania regulars will probably be relieved they no longer have to come to the pub in their pajamas between 2 and 5 a.m., or participate in “barstool yoga at 6 a.m.,” Beetle said.

Beetle doesn’t expect individual teams to bring in as much as they did before.  COVID resulted in shutdowns and many people lost jobs or were furloughed. Lower household income and reduced spending and giving are now endemic problems for charities and nonprofit organizations, which are increasingly seeking grant-funding. But no longer confined by a given number of barstools, Beetle hopes the number of teams participating in It's For the Kids will double from 31 to 62, raising or equaling the money brought in previously.

“If the bar is set too high, sometimes you can burn out raising that money," he said. "Whatever works, and is sustainable and fun. It has to be fun and in the spirit of what we’re doing, so people want to participate,” he said.

The Children’s auction “is very important to me,” Rogato said. “The money stays local. It helps children and families in need. I see so many people without things. If I can do something to help, it makes me feel good.”

To sign up as an individual fund-raiser or team for the Its For the Kids Community Challenge, email abeetle@metrocast.net, or info@childrensauction.com.

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