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‘Phil-ing’ the corps coffers

Captains Dawn and Shane Carter with (from left) Rick Horner, Dr. Joe Kernich, and Dr. Tom Frantz.

The long shadow of winter will be a little shorter for The Salvation Army in Punxsutawney, Pa. This year, the corps met its fundraising goal thanks to the generosity of the community and a local group that spearheaded a last-minute effort.

It was an idea that began in December when Dr. Joe Kernich, a primary care physician in Punxsutawney for almost 40 years, woke up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water.

“I walked downstairs, and our local newspaper was sitting there,” he said. “I read an article about The Salvation Army and how there was a paucity of places to put kettles because some of our businesses were closed and because of the pandemic. They also had a difficult time recruiting people to ring the bells and stand there and do the in-person appeal.

“A number of my patients have benefited from The Salvation Army and I’m sure somewhere along the way, close friends or family members have also benefited. The Army is one of those feel-good organizations that, if I can help them out, I feel like I’ve made a difference in society and with humanity because the Army is focused and moving in the right direction.”


Calling on friends

Kernich has been involved in various community events in the small Pennsylvania borough made famous every February 2 by Groundhog Day and “Punxsutawney Phil.” Kernich decided to see what he and some of his influential friends could do to help The Salvation Army.

“I’m involved with a number of things in town,” Kernich said. “I do some beneficial things every now and then. I’m a very good idea person and I’m fairly organized.”

The first thing Kernich did was to secure the permission of his wife, Mary Ann. Then he started calling friends, including Rick Horner, who owns H&H Supply, a heating and plumbing supply store; Bill Deeley, a former president of the Groundhog Club; Dr. Tom Frantz, the former superintendent of schools in Punxsutawney; and Dwayne Miller, a veteran and former furniture store owner.

The group crafted 250 fundraising letters with the heading “Saving our Salvation Army Christmas Project.”

“Each of us came up with a list of about 50 people we knew in the region that making a small donation was not going to impact their life significantly, except maybe make them feel good around Christmastime,” Kernich said. “We personalized the letters. We wrote their names at the top and we signed off on the bottom and got them out in the mail.”

People could donate $50 and $100 or more, if so inclined. They were given a week to donate. “Let’s get it done!” the top of the letter read.


God provides

Meanwhile, Horner donated three gift baskets that included Milwaukee tools from his store. For $50, donors received one chance to win a basket through a raffle and $100 gave them three chances. Mary Ann Kernich decorated the baskets in cellophane.

“We put these baskets on display,” Kernich said. “You’d be surprised by the number of folks who walked by the baskets and said, ‘What’s this all about?’ Then they walked back to the counter and threw down a $50 bill or $100 bill and said, ‘Hey, I want to make a donation and maybe I’ll win one of those baskets.’ They looked really attractive and everybody wanted to win one.”

Donors could also drop off their contributions at selected businesses, call in a credit card donation or mail it to a post office box.

When Kernich opened one of the first envelopes and found a substantial check, he knew things would go well. The campaign initially collected $25,235 and a check was presented to Captains Dawn and Shane Carter at the Punxsutawney Corps on Dec. 22. Some late checks pushed the total “north of $26,000,” Kernich said.

“We were pleased with the generosity of people in the area who really recognized what The Salvation Army was about and how desperate the cause was because of the pandemic,” Kernich said.

Captain Shane Carter said the Punxsutawney Corps set a fundraising goal of $23,000, but far exceeded that, thanks to Kernich’s group.

“They raised more than our entire kettle goal in just their funds alone,” Carter said. “We ended up surpassing our goal. It was definitely beneficial as far as the kettle season is concerned, especially with the pandemic this year. We were actually low on bell ringers.”


Overcoming the odds

Carter said the corps usually hires a few bell ringers, but about halfway through the season, two of them had to quarantine due to COVID-19.

“We actually ended up with a minimal amount of manpower,” Carter said. “This gift was actually phenomenally beneficial because we didn’t really have much ability to stand kettles.

“This donation went a long way toward boosting the general operation of the corps, especially given that a lot of our fundraisers for the year either had to be cancelled or revamped or was hindered by the virus. We lost a whole lot of funding just in not being able to do fundraising as we normally would have done otherwise.”

Kernich said the group he organized is made up of Christians who attend various churches.

“All of us are Christians,” he said, “and certainly our religious convictions played a part in terms of recognizing that this was a need.”

While the popular movie “Groundhog Day” is about a man living the same day over and over again, Kernich is not sure if the fundraising appeal will repeat itself.

“I think we certainly demonstrated that doing it is possible,” he said. “I think we’ll wait to see where they are next year and what their needs are. If there’s a real need to help them out again and they tap us on the shoulder, I’m sure we’re going to be there to provide them with some help.”


The art of the possible

In the fundraising letter, the group said The Salvation Army “transcends religion, politics, ethnic affiliation, race, and social status.”

“It’s there for everybody,” Kernich said. “I’ve seen them show up at times when somebody’s house was burning down. The response we got from the people here who we contacted to help out was just phenomenal. Everybody was receptive to it. We had no idea it would be that successful.”

Kernich said he and the others in the group want no glory or recognition. They simply want to show other communities that such an effort can be done.

“The intent was to show a community coming together and what is possible,” he said. “It was the success of the Christmas season. It wasn’t due to us. We engineered it, but it was the people who contributed and came through for The Salvation Army.”

“Like a lot of small towns in America, our town needed a substantively funded group like The Salvation Army that people can depend on and know that they’re there during an emergency.”

by Robert Mitchell

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