For more than 50 years now, a group of volunteers in the community have worked together to make the holiday season a little more joyful for local families in need.
The tradition was started by White Salmon grocer Al Lermo and hardware store owner Rel Vigus in 1945, and is now spearheaded by the Community Benefit Committee. The committee's president is Wayne Carlock, who worked for Lermo in the 1940s.
"I got involved then because I worked for him," Carlock said. "He got it started for needy people then. Not a year has been missed. The community has covered every year since 1945."
Every year, funds raised at the Community Benefit Dinner and elsewhere go to help supply a Christmas food basket for approximately 100 area families.
Carlock praised all those who are active in lending a helping hand to their neighbors.
"Every local organization is represented at the Community Benefit Dinner," Carlock said. "All three schools collect canned foods, and they do a terrific job. The school kids make the posters, and the middle school does a penny drive to help out. They raised over $800 last year."
Many local businesses and churches help as well. For example, donations of canned goods will also be accepted at Thriftway until Dec. 16. There is a box for that purpose inside the store.
"We call it `community unity,'" said Les Donaldson, who manages the ticket sales for the annual fundraising dinner.
This year's dinner will be on Dec. 14. It will be held at the White Salmon Elks Lodge between the hours of 11:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tickets cost $6 for adults, or $5 if purchased in advance. A family ticket costs $20, and there are discounts for seniors and young people.
In 2002, 380 attended the dinner, which offers "turkey or beef with all the trimmings."
"My goal is to sell 600 tickets. I'm close to halfway there," Donaldson said, adding that people can take the meal home if they choose to.
"You can buy tickets for take out, and take the meal home to eat," he said.
Carlock said the distribution of the food baskets is designed to help families living within the boundaries of the White Salmon School District, and also includes Glenwood, Trout Lake, and Klickitat.
The group used to serve Lyle also, but in recent years the Lyle Lions have distributed food baskets in the Lyle area.
"We work with the Lyle Lions so we can go back and forth with any surplus to fill any special needs," Donaldson explained.
Families that get the food boxes are nominated or can apply by way of forms available at local banks, at the two city post offices, and at the Washington Department of Social & Health Services office.
The applications are then screened by committee members.
This year, teams organized by the Community Benefit Committee will gather on Dec. 20, at the Elks Lodge in White Salmon, to prepare the food baskets for the families that will receive them.
"Volunteers come in and do that," said Mary Ann Voigt, secretary of the committee. "They organize them and put the family names on boxes."
Voigt said they have come up with an "assembly line" process that has streamlined preparation of the boxes.
"The new system works great," Voigt explained. "It used to take us days to get them ready, now we can do it in one morning."
Donaldson pointed out that the campaign is not directly affiliated with the Elks.
"The Elks are nice enough to let us use their facilities, but there are all these other people who do so much to make this work," he explained. "There is no one sponsor. It's everybody in the community. That's why we came up with the `community unity' theme."
"There are quite a lot of donations to keep us afloat," Carlock added. "There are at least 70 people in the community who work on this, and that's not counting the school kids."
Last year, the committee distributed Christmas baskets to 98 families. A similar number of families are expected to be helped this year.
"Maybe a little more than last year," Donaldson said.
"The KSDC (Klickitat-Skamania Development Council) Food Bank helps us find who meets the criteria, and the welfare office helps too," Donaldson explained.
"We do not duplicate the Food Bank or welfare," Carlock added. "If they serve them, we won't."
Donaldson said the troubled regional economy may be hindering sales to the Community Benefit Dinner.
"I'm out there selling tickets, and I'm having to struggle," Donaldson explained. "And with the school population down, I don't know if that will affect the school can drive. But I think we'll do all right. We'll do the best we can with what we have."
In fact, welfare advocacy groups in Washington are seeing more people needing assistance in getting food and other necessities.
Marion Hogan, executive director of the Washington Coalition for the Homeless, said she is seeing an increased need for assistance statewide.
"A lot of low income people who don't ordinarily use food banks are resorting to that at the end of the month as their pay runs out," Hogan explained.
"If you look at the economy, there are very few options for folks who used to be middle class and no longer are," added David Ottey, executive director of the Emergency Food Network in Pierce County.
Last year, the Community Benefit Committee raised $1,364, with all proceeds going into the committee's general fund for anybody in need.
The money goes to buy whole (frozen) turkeys, eggs, butter, milk, bread and other items that are included in the holiday food baskets.
According to Donaldson, the food could feed a family for as long as two weeks.
Voigt said the committee can always use more help.
"Anyone who wants to get involved, they're welcome to serve on the committee," she said. "The more the merrier."
"This is just a fun deal," Carlock added. "You know, we don't know how fortunate we have it."