3 women host 9th annual turkey drive for St. Vincent de Paul

Monday is last day for community to donate
Betty Niemi and Keith Wertheimer of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, left, present St. Vincent de Paul's General Manager Dan Austin, right, along with St. Vincent de Paul employee Martha Crockromp, third from left, and volunteers Rena Sims, Louise Wertheiner and Paula Sumdum a combined $1,500 in checks to help with the organization's annual Thanksgiving food basket drive on Wednesday.

‘Tis the season of thankfulness and turkey drives. And one group of local volunteers for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Catholic charitable organization, has rallied the community year after year to donate to those less fortunate, especially during the holiday season.

The group of ladies and old-time friends — Louise Wertheimer, Rena Sims and Paula Sumdum — are hosting the turkey drive for the ninth consecutive year and are urging the community in a last ditch effort to donate canned goods and turkeys for a good cause before the final Monday deadline.

“We’re short with the green beans, stuffing, corn, olives, mashed potatoes, cranberries, gravy mix, rolls and pies,” Sims said. “But that happens every year, which scares me, but it’ll happen at the last minute. It always does.”

The trio began accepting donations on behalf of the society on Nov. 1, and more than 150 people have already signed up to receive the Thanksgiving basket. Many more — usually 400 total people — are expected to receive the boxes, Sims noted.

St. Vincent de Paul has held the turkey drive since the 1980s, and 25 baskets were given out to families the first year by several volunteers. The event has grown with time, and more than 503 Thanksgiving turkeys were doled out in 2010, Wertheimer said.

It’s all thanks to the community, they say.

“There are so many people who get involved, and they are just so generous,” Wertheimer said.

Some big-time donors in Juneau have pulled through year after year to ensure the drive’s success. One anonymous man has donated hundreds of turkeys to the group, kick-starting the annual drive. He gave 240 birds this year and 265 last year. One waitress saved $1 from her tips for a year to donate food to the society. Other frequent donors are Channel Construction, Costco, Walmart, Superbear Super Market, Alaskan and Proud, Safeway, PepsiCo, Odom Distributors, Sun-Kissed Tanning Salon, and many more. Other community groups, including Juneau Youth Services, pitch in to help deliver the baskets to those who are unable to pick their baskets from the community center.

This year marked the first drive that received money donations. Betty Niemi, the head trustee with the Fraternal Order of Eagles Auxiliary No. 4200, and Louise’s husband Keith Wertheimer, on behalf on the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie No. 4200, presented the trio with $1,000 and $500 checks, respectively, on Wednesday at St. Vincent de Paul Society offices in the Smith Hall Senior Apartments.

“We are so thrilled,” Louise said, noting the money will be used to buy cases of food. “You can never have enough food,” she added.

The women, who know each other from the foster care community and who all lived on the same street in the Valley, asked Dan Austin, the general manager of St. Vincent de Paul, nearly a decade ago if they could help with the turkey drive after they noticed some agencies in town had a cut-off list of the number of families that could receive Thanksgiving baskets.

“We would see people walk away because there was no food,” said Sims, who founded Sims Foster Group Home about 15 years ago and is licensed by the state to work with medically fragile children. “The worst thing is to have a holiday and there’s no food.”

Sims and the others invited some who were turned away to eat in their own homes (and they still to this day host a huge Thanksgiving banquet for friends and family-— this year the guest list is at 75), but they wanted to give people the option to make their own meal for their families with dignity, if they wanted.

Some of the recipients in the past three years or so have not been poor by definition, Sims added, but because of the economic downturn, a holiday feast proved too expensive.

“With the economy, an extra meal, an extra family gathering is usually not in people’s budgets,” Sims said.

“Especially at the end of the month,” Sumdum quipped. “If Thanksgiving was the first of month, it would be easier but because it’s at the end of the month people have run out of food stamps.”

Sumdum, now retired, has been a licensed foster parent since 1994 through state of Alaska Office of Children’s Service and a therapeutic foster parent through Catholic Community Services. She is also a former house parent for Juneau Youth Services and the former board president of St. Vincent de Paul Society. She said as a foster parent, she wanted to teach her kids how to pay it forward by learning to give back.

“It was our hope because the community gave to our kids, that we wanted to teach our kids that you had to give back,” she said. “That you had to pay it forward.”

Wertheimer is also a licensed foster parent and has been since 2001.

Austin on Wednesday called the three women “saints” for their hard work.

“These three people right here are the people that do this, every single year,” he said. “They’re the ones that put in the hours. These are actually saints — they’re the saints of Juneau.”

For information on how to donate, or how to receive a Thanksgiving basket, call St. Vincent de Paul at 789-5535 or visit svdpjuneau.org. Donations can be dropped off on Friday at St. Vincent de Paul at 8617 Teal St., and donations Saturday through Monday should be dropped off at the Riverbend Community Center, behind the Mendenhall Post Office.

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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