The giving began in 1984 with a family of three, two parents with a young child. - The family's budget that December totaled $275 and $10 in food stamps. Food and clothing topped their Christmas wish list, which grew as Social Security disability checks shrunk. - Help arrived quickly. - That family was the first of thousands to receive help through The Gazette/El Pomar Empty Stocking Fund, a charity drive founded by The Gazette that has grown into a massive holiday campaign to aid those in need. During the past five years, at least 2,100 people donated to the fund each holiday season. - On Thursday, the fund embarks on its 30th campaign, seeking this year to help 15 health and human service nonprofits across the Pikes Peak region.
Over the years, residents, businesses and foundations have donated about $14 million, helping local nonprofit organizations.
The campaign commits 100 percent of donations to the people or nonprofits who need them, because The Gazette, the El Pomar Foundation, Wells Fargo and ADD STAFF cover all administrative costs. El Pomar also provides its fellows to work with the nonprofits on events and fundraising for the Empty Stocking Fund. Radio and TV stations, such as Clear Channel, Cumulus and KRDO, provide complimentary advertising to help the campaign.
"This is a true community collaboration," Gazette Publisher Dan Steever said. "Part of our mission as a news organization is to be a leader in this community, and we felt the Empty Stocking Fund was a perfect fit in that the community comes together to help our neighbors in need."
But its impact can be seen less in money raised and more in the faces of people whose lives are changed.
"It's one of the ways the community comes together in a really significant, wonderful caring way," said Lynne Telford, chief executive of Care and Share Food Bank of Southern Colorado.
"When you look at the list of donors to the Empty Stocking Fund, it just seems like everybody in town is participating at some level," she said.
E. Roy Smith, The Gazette's publisher in 1984, adopted the idea from a sister publication within Freedom Communications, The Gazette's previous owner. Clarity Media opted quickly to continue the tradition when it bought the news organization last year.
The concept was simple: request donations while publishing stories about the people who might benefit.
About a month after it started, 27 families received help with food, medicine, Christmas presents and money for looming rent and utility bills, according to Gazette archives. More people were helped as more money funneled into the program.
In its infancy, the giving was more individual.
A family received birthday presents for a year from members of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, while the parents were treated to a wedding anniversary dinner, archives show.
One person donated hard-to-find Cabbage Patch dolls - eight of them, to be exact. And donations helped one family get to a Minnesota hospital to see their bed-ridden father for Christmas.
That first holiday season, the Pikes Peak region raised $45,716, while also donating almost $7,000 in food, clothing, furniture and toys, archives show.
Back then, the fund's personality was different - more of a canned-food drive than a million-dollar campaign.
The city was different, too. Thirty years ago, nearly 355,000 people lived in El Paso County - compared with about 645,000 people today. Ronald Reagan was president, Prince topped the music charts with "When Doves Cry" and pronghorn antelope well outnumbered houses east of Powers Boulevard.
The fund grew steadily, and in 1997, the El Pomar Foundation offered its philanthropic muscle to partially match donations and cover some of the administrative costs.
That year, the fund doubled from $141,310 to $303,664.
"Their partnership and resources and the leverage they gave to the community donations - the extra incentive, the extra kick that provided - really caused the thing to take off," said Tom Mullen, The Gazette's editor from 1981 to 1991 and publisher from 2000 to 2004.
The Bruni Foundation signed on in 2000, also helping to match donations. And during the 2008-09 campaign, the fund reached its peak - totaling about $1.32 million.
Donations and matching funds have topped $1 million every year since, reaching about $1.07 million last year.
"It's still kind of amazing, if you think about it, how many people in the community contribute to it pretty faithfully year after year," Mullen said.
It didn't take long for Gazette officials to change the way it distributes the money. Most years, officials chose nonprofits across the Pikes Peak region to receive the growing pot of funds - rather than distribute it to individual families.
Last year, 15 nonprofits used that money for myriad services, including rental assistance, indigent dental care and diapers and baby food.
For example, the fund gave $64,000 last year to Catholic Charities, which oversees the Marian House soup kitchen. It used that money for four Marian House programs, including meals and diapers.
Few organizations have benefited more than Care and Share, which received about $117,000 last year. In all, the organization has received $1.4 million over the past 20 years, Telford said.
The impact at the food bank is all the more impressive given that it can purchase 10 pounds of food with every dollar it receives, she said.
"That's an amazing amount of money that we're able to turn into food," Telford said.
The effectiveness of Empty Stocking Fund donations come in the flexibility they offer - a vital facet for agencies providing help to people on the brink homelessness. Sometimes clients need help with rent. Others need gas money to get to work.
Meanwhile, grant funding often can be used only for specific purposes.
"Everyone is different - not everyone has the same needs," said Janel O'Hayre, programs manager for the Pikes Peak Community Action Agency. More than $100,000 of the nonprofit's roughly $800,000 budget comes from the fund - and it can be used for nearly anything.
After 30 years, the fund is changing.
Beginning in 2014, nonprofits must apply every two years to receive funding - a shift meant to offer more organizations a chance at benefiting from the fund and to be "better stewards for the community," said Amy Horton, The Gazette's fund program manager.
Only three new organizations have joined the fund's rolls since the 2003-04 campaign, Horton said.
Demand has been high to receive help. Seven organizations were turned down in August to join this year's campaign, but will be considered next year if they apply, she said.
Through it all, the goal remains the same: Help people in need, and make sure no donations go toward overhead costs.
"Many anticipate it, many participate with it, and the community benefits when that happens," said Bill Hybl, the El Pomar Foundation's president.
Contact: Jakob Rodgers at 476-1654