North Coast Journal


Fund-raising top guns

by Marie Gravelle

IF YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE a heart attack, don't have it at home. At least not yet. Rich Wolven just happened to be in Bend, Ore., last year when his ticker went out. There, he received instant care and was out of the hospital in two days.

Then he came home -- to shocking news from his North Coast doctor.

Cardiologist Howard Feldman told the 52-year-old dentist his arteries may "re-narrow." Heart surgery is not available in Humboldt County, so Wolven may have to go back to Bend, or Redding, or Santa Rosa or .... most anywhere but here.

"This is the most providential heart attack," Feldman told his patient at their first appointment. You see, Feldman had been banging on doors, trying to drum up support to build a heart surgery center in Eureka.

"I couldn't have ordered this," Feldman said. A bit excited, the doctor and patient zipped over to a Rotary Club meeting that same day. "I stood up and told 150 guys that I had a heart attack," Wolven said. "They just about all passed out."

The slender, nonsmoker, nondrinker doesn't look like a heart attack candidate. Unfortunately, he's far from alone. In fact, heart disease is still the No. 1 killer out there. And -- as Wolven found out -- Humboldt County is relatively ill-equipped to deal with it.

But that's all going to change. Feldman, Wolven and others are now on a mission. They're going to squeeze enough money out of this community to build a heart-surgery center.

That's fund raising, Humboldt County style. It's always personal. People don't give just for the hell of it. It has to hit home. Since the Rotary Club meeting about a year ago, more than $500,000 has been raised and there's no doubt in anyone's mind that Eureka will have a heart-surgery center opened by the target date of 1997. It's one example of what a driven community can accomplish. With faith in government at an all-time low, people in isolated areas like this don't count on state or federal funds.

"People know that if we don't do it, it's not going to happen," said Bruce Emad, a stock broker and fellow Rotarian who is helping to head up the heart fund drive. Times have changed, he said. "Twenty years ago I would have been surprised at the generosity of the local community. Today I'm not."

People appear to be giving more these days, especially in Humboldt County. According to foundation records, people on the North Coast are almost twice as generous as their counterparts in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The James Irvine Foundation, centered in San Francisco and worth about $280 million, accumulates about $56 a year per person. The Humboldt Area Foundation, centered in Eureka and worth about $16 million, gathers about $107 per person. "For a community this size, we're one of the largest per capita foundations in the country," said Peter Pennekamp, HAF's executive director.

And American Cancer Society records show Humboldt to be the second most generous county in the state, per capita. Wealthy Marin County is the only one higher.

To ask why is to ask who. And not necessarily who the big donors are, but who the fund raisers are.

"Do you know anyone up here who's not on some board?" Pennekamp asked. "Every event here is a fund raiser." A drawback for Humboldt County is the fact there are so many groups competing for so many dollars. There are over 200 nonprofit groups in Eureka alone with about 600 on the entire North Coast.

But that turns into an asset when one realizes the amount of volunteer labor available. And some of these people are fund-raising fanatics. They're so effective, they could squeeze spare change from a panhandler.

"In this county we're supposed to be economically depressed," said Marge Custis, a Eureka fund raiser who worked to build both the Planned Parenthood clinic on Harrison Avenue in Eureka and the Hospice of Humboldt offices on Myrtle Avenue.

"We raised $95,000 in two months," Custis said of her Planned Parenthood drive. "That floored me."

Another time she helped raise $20,000 for the Jaws of Life. "We did it on a telethon in three hours on a Sunday afternoon."

And then there was the muscular dystrophy campaign, where Custis and her group raised more than any other county per capita. They raised $101,000 -- about $1 per resident at that time.

You just ask people for money, she said. "And, occasionally, you take somebody to lunch." Then there's Muriel Dinsmore. She doesn't even get to the meal.

"Most of the fund raising in Humboldt County begins over a cup of coffee," said Dinsmore, a long-time spokesperson and fund raiser for College of the Redwoods. Recently retired, she was around in the early '70s when the community built the CR stadium.

"It's a $250,000 stadium built completely with donated funds and materials," Dinsmore said, proudly reading off its assets, like an all-weather track and glassed-in press boxes. "That was major."

How'd she raise all that money? "I simply called 100 people and each pledged $1,000," she said.

"There are many very nice people in Humboldt County." The quick-thinking organizer has had her hand in myriad county projects ever since high school. "My first fund raiser was gathering scrap metal for World War II," Dinsmore said.

Her patriotic spirit grew to a community spirit. She's raised money for libraries, historic preservation projects and numerous CR projects.

"There are peaks and valleys and sleepless nights," Dinsmore said of her efforts. "But it's always been a total pleasure."

And it's been a pleasure, she said, to watch others succeed. Vector Health Programs, Inc., which offers health-care seminars, exercise programs and other specialized medical help, began with an $85,000 fund raiser under the guidance of Karen Angel.

"They did it," Dinsmore said, "in approximately four months. It was phenomenal."

But you have to be well-known and respected to raise money in this county. John Burke, another North Coast dentist, is both.

While he's been very successful in many fund-raising campaigns, he claims he's not into altruism.

"We're not raising money for anybody else except us," Burke said. "It's a different kind of charity. It's almost selfish."

Stumping these days along with Emad for the St. Joseph Hospital Heart Institute, Burke said he'll work hard because he doesn't want to have to go out of town if he needs heart surgery.

And he wouldn't want to miss his annual "cross-dressing" event. While the dentist coerces others to give to good causes, the Redwood Concert Ballet has coerced him to dance with them each year. Hugging all the little "bonbons" into his large skirts on the stage of "The Nutcracker," Burke usually takes a bit of ribbing for his role as "Mother Ginger."

It can be costly. His Rotary Club friends good-naturedly "fine" him $100 every time he wears a skirt.

While some women's groups are best known for holding bake sales, Rotary Clubs are famous for "fining" anyone who gets their name in the paper or does a good deed. The member is hauled on stage, castigated, congratulated, honored -- and slapped with a fine.

The money is used to buy band uniforms for Eureka High School students, or to help with hospital equipment or build a new library.

Of course, it took more than a few hundreds to build Eureka's newest addition: the Humboldt County Library. The $9.5 million waterfront project was helped along with state funds, but it all began in small meeting rooms, with modest read-a-thons and raffle tickets.

"We accumulated over $1 million, which was our goal," said Sally Upatisringa, a dedicated local fund raiser whose optimism helped build the library.

"I'm very proud," she said. "I still think of it as my library."

Using creative fund-raising ideas, the library committee even sent a flyer in tax bills several years ago. "We got back $7,000 one year, then $14,000 the next," Upatisringa said, "It was amazing how much money came in. We even got a check for $400 from somebody in the Bay Area."

Liz Murguia, who worked for former Sen. Barry Keene at the time, was also instrumental in getting the library built. Keene sponsored a bill to share the costs, and with Murguia's boosting, it was finally approved.

"We worked against overwhelming odds," Murguia said. "You just have to be single-minded and relentless.

"My friends didn't even want to take my calls anymore." But the two can now sit back. The doors are scheduled to open next month. And seeing the final product makes one understand motivation.

Take Emad, a busy man who serves on several boards and raises money for an army of other causes in addition to the proposed Heart Institute.

"This will put us on the map," Emad said, in a tone that allows no room for argument. Using statistics compiled by heart doctor Feldman, Emad displays county demographics, cost charts and income flow sheets. While the institute will cost $4 million, another $3 million a year will flow into the county from people using the new facility.

It will attract retirees to live in the region. They will spend their disposable incomes in stores, motels and restaurants -- and they won't take away any jobs.

"We will be able to look back and say we did something fantastic for the community," Emad said.

Not every cause elicits such enthusiastic community support, however.

"Two areas that are hard to raise money for are battered women and the homeless," Pennekamp said. "Either people don't want to think about it, or they don't agree with giving to it."

Emad concurs. While he'll stand outside stores at Christmas ringing bells, he wants to raise money for things, not concepts. For example, he and other members of his Rotary Club gave money to buy band uniforms, but they wouldn't agree to pay the band leader's salary.

"The homeless issue is seen as a failure of the government," Emad said. "It's a waste to put money into it."

But there are those who can raise money even for unpopular causes. Kaaren Buffington, a grandmother who went back to school after 30 years to get a history degree, helps with the Arcata House, a temporary shelter for homeless families.

"When I heard about Arcata House, it sounded so great to me," said the assistant curator at the Clarke Memorial Museum, Arcata House bookkeeper and fund raiser.

With help from the city, local foundations, rummage sales, benefit performances and a small "veggie burger" business, volunteers are able to raise money to provide food, utilities, budget training, job search training and other necessities to those on the outs.

"People ask a lot of questions," Buffington said, but once they know what the program is really about, "they give." Like the Arcata House, many fund-raising efforts on the North Coast target women and children. Monica Hadley, the Arcatan known both as a giver and fund raiser, spent many years selling nuts outside stores for the Humboldt Sponsors. A group of 400 or more women, the Sponsors are the largest donor to children's programs in the area. Another Sponsor member is Sally Arnot, known as the "cheerleader of the arts community." She helps raise tens of thousands of dollars each year to keep the Humboldt Arts Council and cultural center alive.

Making Humboldt County a "cultural destination" for tourists is her primary goal.

"We need to promote ourselves more and raise the self-worth of this community," said Arnot, a well-traveled woman who's seen most of the famous museums in the world. But to promote Humboldt, to serve the needs of this area, money is the bottom line. And while bake sales, rummage sales and teas endure, they're not always enough. The big money flows for those who treat fund raising like a science.

Guiamar Sandler, formerly of the St. Joseph's Foundation, is an example of a professional fund raiser. While she may appreciate the $5 and $10 gifts, you can't purchase major medical equipment or build buildings with small change. "I worked on St. Joe's fashion show for six months," Sandler said in an interview several months ago. "We made $19,000.

"In another instance, I spend a half hour preparing information for a foundation board member, who then asked a friend, and we raised $20,000 -- in a half hour."

She prefers to call events, like balls and fashions shows, "friend raisers" not fund raisers.

Mailings and face-to-face contacts work better. And, as Sandler puts it, "some genius invented memorials."

"Why send flowers to a funeral?" St. Joe's is lucky enough to receive thousands of dollars each year "in memory" of someone. Then there are "planned gifts" -- an installment program. It's a form of charity that works for those who want tax benefits and a payment plan. Some give $25 a paycheck. Others send $25,000 a year.

Millions of dollars a year float freely into hundreds of local programs. It's interesting to note the variety of projects, and to see what we've gotten for our money. At-risk children go to summer camp. Elders get lunch delivered to their homes. Low-income children learn soccer, and get new shoes. Playgrounds are created. Libraries are built. Scholarships are given. Animals are sheltered. Cemeteries are kept in order. A Children's bereavement program helps youngsters deal with death. The Sequoia Park Zoo has an aviary. Planned Parenthood exists. FFA children receive fair awards.

At least one of these programs hits home to everyone. If you aren't sick, you know someone who is. If you don't have young children, you know others who do.

Fund raisers like Wolven, who calls himself the "St. Joe poster child," have found out one truth: The best way to touch people in the pocketbook is to touch them in the heart.

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