By: Jakob Rodgers, The Gazette
In one fell swoop, a means exists to help thousands of people ranging from children in preschool to the elderly and infirm taking their dying breaths.
The Gazette/El Pomar Foundation Empty Stocking Fund's 34th campaign kicks off Thursday, beginning an eight-week campaign that seeks to raise at least $1 million for 20 nonprofits working across the Pikes Peak region.
Every penny will go to those nonprofits, because administrative costs are covered by Wells Fargo, ADD STAFF, the El Pomar Foundation, The Anschutz Foundation and The Gazette.
It's a concept that's worked for decades, with the annual campaign having raised more than $18 million since its inception in the mid-1980s. And it's topped at least $1 million for 10 years running.
"We're hopeful to hit that again," said Kyle Hybl, the El Pomar Foundation's president and chief operating officer. "This campaign - it's a part of the solution for our community, and for our nonprofits."
DETAILS - HOW TO GIVE
Make a secure donation at www.fillanemptystocking.org. Call 476-1673 to make a credit card or stock donation. Make check payable to the Empty Stocking Fund and mail to P.O. Box 910942, Denver, CO 80291-0942. Like us on Facebook at Empty Stocking Fund or follow us on Twitter @esfsprings.
The annual tradition began in 1984, when The Gazette asked the community to help dozens of Colorado Springs families in need that holiday season.
The outpouring proved overwhelming. The community donated $45,716 in cash and nearly $7,000 more in food, clothing, furniture and toys - even hard-to-find Cabbage Patch dolls, archives show.
That haul went to dozens of families, not only ensuring that they would have gifts under their trees, but that their rent would be paid. One family even received a trip to a Minnesota hospital, where their bed-ridden father was spending Christmas.
The giving only grew from there.
The El Pomar Foundation came on board in 1997, adding a new degree of fundraising heft and muscle. And the Bruni Foundation joined shortly thereafter.
Together, these two foundations have ensured that each dollar donated to the fund goes a little further.
The El Pomar Foundation, for example, matches $1 for every $3 donated to the Empty Stocking Fund, up to $200,000.
And the Bruni Foundation matches $10,000 for every $100,000 donated, up to $70,000.
"All of the donors' money goes to the program," said Jerry Bruni, the Bruni Foundation's president. "And with the matching, not only does 100 percent go in, it's more than 100 percent."
Unlike the campaign's meager beginnings, toys and cross-country trips aren't on this year's wish list.
It's meals for seniors and shelter for homeless teenagers. It's assistance for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. And it's help for veterans struggling to adjust to life outside of the military.
For these nonprofits, the calls for help just keep getting louder.
"They're just being stretched by the growth in the need, which I think is tied in part to the growth in our community," said Dan Steever, The Gazette's publisher.
This year, the spectrum of those services expanded even further.
Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care joined the list of recipient agencies this year - the first change in the Empty Stocking Fund's lineup since the campaign expanded from 15 to 20 agencies in 2014.
The organization barely predates the stocking fund itself - serving as the city's first hospice facility when it opened in 1980.
It remains El Paso County's only nonprofit community-based hospice provider - a go-to resource for families seeking to help their loved ones live comfortably during their final days.
It assists more than 400 patients a day, about half of whom are in their five-year palliative program.
The remainder receive hospice care, which seeks to help terminally-ill patients live as comfortably as possible during the final months of their lives. That includes providing emotional counseling and resources to come to terms with their death, and to live those final moments without regrets.
"Our job is to make sure that the patient lives every day to the fullest, and is able to resolve any outstanding issues," said Gloria Brooks, the president of Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care. "We're there to be that kind of guiding presence and that listening ear for them."
And that's where some of its share of Empty Stocking Fund money will be going.
The nonprofit runs a program called Sentimental Journeys - a bucket-list endeavor that aims to offer a final, long-out-of-reach experience or memory to someone near death.
Some people go to the Garden of the Gods or the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. During the Labor Day weekend, the program helped one married couple's relatives travel to Colorado for a final visit.
One lifelong Denver Broncos fan received a ticket to attend one more game - this one against the Oakland Raiders.
The rest of the money will go to provide grief counseling and support for the relatives of people under the nonprofit's care, and others experiencing grief throughout the community. It's a service in need of expansion, Brooks said.
"We're really looking to do more for patients next year," Brooks said. "Especially on the grief side, based on what we're seeing in the community.
"When we keep having these national shooting tragedies, the whole community grieves. And that really can trigger somebody's past loss."
For many of the other 19 nonprofits, the campaign is critical in filling any budgetary holes that invariably arise throughout the year.
The money doled out by the Empty Stocking Fund is unique in that nonprofits are granted flexibility in how to spend it.
With grant funding so often tied to specific programs or needs, ensuring initiatives can withstand the ups and downs of different grant cycles can be difficult, said Kristy Milligan, CEO of Westside CARES.
"It funds a little bit of all of our programs," Milligan said. "So it really goes along way to helping people fill critical gaps."
"It allows community members to harness the power of collective philanthropy," Milligan added. "There's no other mechanism where someone can give $5 and be a part of something so much bigger."
Last year, the campaign raised nearly $1.2 million, on the strength of nearly 2,100 donors.
That's a small fraction of the 700,000 people living in El Paso and Teller Counties. But Bruni and other organizers wonder aloud how much would be raised if even just 2 percent of the community pitched in.