It takes a village: Local churches feed residents for Christmas

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By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

Lana Ginger didn’t want to be alone at Christmas, so she came to First Congregational Church in Port Huron.

“I just wanted to get out of the house and I didn’t want to be alone,” the Port Huron resident said. “I know they throw on the best Christmas meal in the whole city. I thank all these people. This is Christmas, and they are taking time away from their families to do this.”

She’s attended the meal the past two Christmases.

About 400 people came to First Congregational on Thursday to eat; volunteers delivered 308 meals.

The church has been doing the free Christmas meal for 29 years. Jeremy and Melinda Thompson have been involved for 15 years and now run the show.

“It’s unfortunate there are this many people in our community who are still hurting and suffering,” Melinda Thompson said. “But I think the fact that we are here is helping bring the community together.”

The church’s lunch area quickly filled with a line that fed into the neighboring hallway.

“I don’t know what all these people would do otherwise,” Jeremy Thompson said. “Frankly, I don’t know what we would do on Christmas. Our whole family is down here. This is Christmas for us.”

Back in the kitchen, volunteers and church members were busy at work. The Thompsons’ eldest children were volunteering their time on Christmas by preparing some of the food and packaging a portion of the delivery meals.

The dinners included turkey, vegetables, mashed potatoes and an assortment of pies. The food was donated by parishioners and local businesses.

Volunteers, who could be spotted by their name tags and warm smiles, would occasionally stand in line with a container to be filled and sent out for delivery.

All Saints Episcopal Church in Marysville also had a free community dinner.

The Rev. Tracie Little said there’s a big difference between the first meal nine years ago and now.

“Nine years ago we had a dream to provide a meal for people who had nowhere to go,” she said. “It’s grown ever since then. We put about 300 meals out, and this is our busiest and most hectic day of the year. But it is the one filled with the most joy.”

She said it was a blessing to be able to share dinner for the holidays because of the atmosphere it creates.

Behind the counter that separated the kitchen from the church’s hungry guests were Sydney and Chloe DiFranco.

The sisters, who are 13 and 10 years old, respectively, were in town visiting their grandmother for Christmas.

Having arrived Tuesday from Palm Beach, Florida, they made it an effort to volunteer while they were more than 1,300 miles away from home.

“It was just something we wanted to do,” Sydney said. “We’re here for six days, and decided to volunteer by serving food.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 25, 2014)


Council on Aging, local churches prepare meals for Christmas

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By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

While most people will be inside celebrating Christmas with loved ones Thursday, volunteers for the St. Clair County Council on Aging will be busy delivering meals.

Jyme Hager, assistant administrator for the Council on Aging, said the Christmas dinners will be sent out across the county.

“They can call our office, but we have all volunteers this year,” Hager said. “We will be delivering more than 350 meals to the whole county. We have 38 different groups of volunteers who will be sent out on Christmas.”

The meals from the Council on Aging include ham, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, cheesecake and a dinner roll.

Hager said this is one of the three holiday meals the council delivers each year, including Thanksgiving and Easter. Meals will not be served at senior citizen centers.

The council was taking in orders for delivered meals a week before Christmas, so Hager and the staff could get an idea of how much food they will need.

“There are a lot of seniors who are home alone,” Hager said. “They appreciate us and the volunteers who give them their dinners. We started signing people up for Christmas volunteering at Thanksgiving time.”

All Saints Episcopal Church in Marysville will be serving food at 543 Michigan Ave., from noon to 3 p.m.

Tracie Little, director for the church, said the meals are also available for takeout and delivery.

The dinner will include ham, turkey, potatoes, baked beans, green beans, squash, coleslaw, buns and desserts.

Little said this will be the ninth consecutive year the church has given away donated dinners.

“We have people looking forward to reaching and giving back,” she said. “There is a great need for folks who find themselves economically challenged.”

The First Congregational Church at 723 Court St. in Port Huron is having a free Christmas dinner from noon to 2 p.m. Christmas Day.

Church members Jeremy and Melinda Thompson are coordinating the dinner, which will include turkey, ham, dressing, potatoes and gravy, vegetables, peaches, cranberry sauce, dessert and beverages.

This marks the 29th year the church will be providing Christmas dinners. Thompson said he and his wife took over responsibilities for the dinner a few years ago to feed people who live in the Old Town area.

“The dinner is a complete holiday meal that’s all made at the church,” Thompson said. “We start making them two days before the big day. On Christmas Eve, we make the stuffing and prepare the rest of the meal.”

Eight crews of drivers will be making deliveries, as Thompson said the volunteers will be accepting orders until 10 a.m. on Christmas Day. Last year the church provided 760 meals, 366 of which were delivered to families within the county.

The dinners are funded through donations by individuals and local businesses.

“It’s a reward for the recipients of the meal and the volunteers as well,” Thompson said. “There is a lot of need in our area. Some have very little on Christmas, so we try to provide something nice for them.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 24, 2014)

Salvation Army close to goal for Red Kettle Campaign

Port Huron resident Hal Gerhold stands outside Kroger at 1215 24th St. in Port Huron, raising money for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. (Tony Wittkowski | Times Herald)

Port Huron resident Hal Gerhold stands outside Kroger at 1215 24th St. in Port Huron, raising money for the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign. (Tony Wittkowski | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

St. Clair County residents are embracing the holiday spirit as the Salvation Army nears its goal for the year.

Laura Smith, coordinator of the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign, said that as of Tuesday bell ringers have raised 74 percent of the $400,000 goal for the holiday season. With $293,447 raised, the Salvation Army already has eclipsed the $266,143 collected at this point last year.

Smith urged residents to find ways to get others involved.

“We’re doing well, but we are quite a bit down from our goal,” Smith said. “The other day, somebody posted online to stop by our kettles and make a donation, and that’s what brought them out. People are finding other ways to help out.”

The bell ringers who stand outside local businesses will be out collecting today — and Smith said she still is looking for more volunteers.

There are 17 Red Kettle locations, and Smith said two to eight people are posted at each site.

Smith said people who want to donate also can stop by the Salvation Army Citadel, 2000 Court St., Port Huron, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

“We see a lot of people donating because we have helped them or a family member during the war, so it’s just a way for them to pay it forward,” Smith said. “A lot of the ringers are surprised by the amount of young people that do stop by and make a donation.”

Bram Turner has been ringing bells for the Salvation Army for three years.

On Tuesday, the Port Huron resident stood outside the Hobby Lobby in Fort Gratiot performing “Joy to the World” on the cornet he plays with the Salvation Army Band.

“Any donation means a lot to the Salvation Army and the people it’s going to,” Turner said. “I love the Salvation Army, and seeing the smiles on kids’ faces when they put money in the kettle. I love the job. I love the people.”

Outside the Kroger at 1215 24th St. in Port Huron Township, Hal Gerhold rang his bell while covered from head to toe to combat the cold.

The Port Huron resident said he has volunteered for his church and the Salvation Army because it “helps a good cause.”

Stationed near the entry doors of Kroger, Gerhold said he had plenty of interaction with customers who donated money.

“Everybody keeps telling me to stay warm. Another guy told me he has been doing this for 10 years,” Gerhold said. While his bucket began to fill toward the end of his seven-hour shift, he said there was more than just change that was put in his red kettle. “I’ve seen some fives and tens and a lot of one-dollar bills. It all adds up in the end.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 23, 2014)

Port Huron Statement approved as historical marker by Michigan Historical Commission

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

More than half a century ago, college students camping on the shores of Lake Huron issued their manifesto demanding equality, justice and a return to participant democracy.

Whether the “Port Huron Statement” even led to the “truly democratic” society the Students for a Democratic Society envisioned is probably open to debate.

Tom Hayden, left, and Jim Soto discuss the Port Huron Statement in 2012. Hayden was the author of the original draft for the historical document. (Courtesy Photo)

Tom Hayden, left, and Jim Soto discuss the Port Huron Statement in 2012. Hayden was the author of the original draft for the historical document. (Courtesy Photo)

But a democratic process has led to a historical marker that will commemorate their contribution to 1960s society and the counter-culture of student activism.

Acting on a petition from 96 Blue Water Area residents, the Michigan Historical Commission approved a marker for the site where the Port Huron Statement written.

In June 1962, college students met at a United Auto Workers camp — now Lakeport State Park — to fashion a manifesto calling for a “truly democratic” society. Later named the Port Huron Statement, it was considered to be the catalyst for the student movement in the United States in the 1960s.

The Port Huron Statement called for nuclear disarmament, civil rights protections for minorities, educational reforms and other changes to American society.

“We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love,” the 25,000-word manifesto proclaims.

Port Huron resident Dave Bennis sent in the initial application for the historical marker after events to make their statement’s 50th anniversary.

Bennis, one of nearly 100 community members who lobbied for the marker, said the two years spent on the project was well worth it.

“There were so many influential people who were involved in that movement,” Bennis said. “It underscored the need for non-violent, peaceful confrontation. It was the birthplace of a lot of different movements. This was before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964).”

Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, said, “The commission agrees this is a significant part of the state’s history and the nation’s history, as well.”

In 2012, St. Clair County Community College associate professor Jim Soto invited Tom Hayden — the author of the original draft for the statement — to give a lecture to his students. Hayden, now 77, told his audience they should make the site a historical marker.

“Tom had told us ‘The history should be woven into the landscape,’” Soto said. “It advanced the idea of participatory democracy where individuals should have the decision-making power over the laws that affect their lives.”

Two years later, the Lakeport State Park will have a green sign with gold lettering on it explaining the site’s significance. Bennis said a date for the installation hasn’t been set.

Approval for the Lakeport marker look at least twice as long as normal, but that wasn’t because of the subject.

“With this particular one we had a change in staff and had a hole in the middle, delaying the process,” Clark said. “Because markers are very small in terms of the amount of text, a lot of things we do is weeding things down.”

Clark said the Michigan Historical Commission has approved 18 to 24 markers every year, on average, since the 1950s.

St. Clair and Sanilac counties are home to dozens of markers, ranging from a lakeside marker remembering the Great Storm of 1913 to one commemorating Harry Truman’s honeymoon visit to the Harrington Hotel in Port Huron.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2014)

St. Clair County jurors to be paid in cash for service

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

St. Clair County residents who are summoned for jury duty will be paid in cash starting Jan. 1.

St. Clair County Clerk Jay DeBoyer said the change will result in a reduction in cost for materials and labor.

“It’s a convenience for the jurors when they serve,” DeBoyer said. “We have been looking at all the potential costs with the jury system, as well as an easier way to compensate our jurors.”

The normal routine for the clerk’s office would involve cutting checks to all the jurors at the end of the month. The process would involve inputting data, printing the checks and purchasing stamps.

Accounting for the cost in postage, envelopes and checks, DeBoyer estimated the total savings for the county to be up to $5,000 to $6,000 a year in raw materials. However, those estimates do not take into account the cost of labor for county employees to collecting the data.

The new payment method would apply to every member of the jury, DeBoyer said, whether they were only called into the jury pool or served in a trial.

DeBoyer said jurors would come in after their time served to collect their pay, thus making the end of the month easier on both the courts and jurors.

“In October, the process of doing the data entry was two days’ worth for one worker,” DeBoyer said. “We’re making an attempt to ensure the jury process is as easy and convenient as possible.”

Tim Novak, county treasurer for Saginaw County, said the county has used cash payments for the last 15 years, which allows workers to balance the amount on a daily basis.

“It saves us a lot of time from chasing uncashed checks,” Novak said. “We never have to reissue checks if they get lost. Normally, the court issues two vouchers, and we keep one as a copy as soon as the juror comes in with it.”

Since there is not a lot of employee time available to generate the payments, Novak said the cash method allows his employees’ interactions with jurors to be as short as one to two minutes to pay them.

“I think at this point and time, that’s our preferred method,” Novak said. “We don’t see any issues with it. We would recommend it with others.”

Avoca resident Scott Creager said regardless of the payment, it’s the amount jurors are paid that is the problem.

“Having a check was not a big deal to me when I served,” Creager said. “I think they need to find a way to get more money for jurors, because I know a lot of people who don’t get money to sit on a jury from their employer.”

According to state law, jurors selected to report receive $25 for the first day, $12.50 for the first half day; and $40 ($20 for each half day) of each subsequent day of actual service plus 24 cents a mile in travel expenses.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 21, 2014)

St. Clair County Community Foundation welcomes four new trustees

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

The Community Foundation of St. Clair County has selected four trustees after saying goodbye to five others.

Janal Mossett, Michael Wendling, Gerry Kramer and Don Fletcher were named to the 27-person board Tuesday.

The Community Foundation has $50 million in assets and manages multiple endowment funds. The foundation was created in 1944.

It is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the Thumb.

Beth Belanger, Connie Harrison, Tom Hunter, Chuck Kelly and Chuck Wanninger recently stepped down from the board. Wanninger’s departure was unexpected, resulting in a vacancy remaining on the board.

“We have an opening, and our governance committee will look to fill that seat by mid-2015,” said Randy Maiers, the foundation’s chief executive officer and president. “Our target is to have 27 board members, but from time to time we do have vacancies.”

All trustees must go through a screening and recruitment process before they are considered a candidate, Maiers said. They must also have served on a committee within the foundation.

Donna Niester, the board chairwoman, said it isn’t odd to see that many trustees leave at one time due to the nine-year limit a member can serve.

“We had an extra one leave because someone retired,” Niester said. “Normally, it’s three to four trustees, but one of them will be moving out of the area.”

While two former trustees are returning, Maiers said the limit only applies to those who serve nine consecutive years. Board members who leave can come back as trustees.

Unless a trustee asks to be retired, he or she is not removed from future consideration.

Kramer and Fletcher both previously served on the board. Fletcher was a trustee from 1999 to 2012 and was chairman from 2010 to 2012. Kramer served on the board from 2001 to 2013.

Niester said there will be an orientation period to help the new trustees.

Wendling, who is the county prosecutor, said he has been involved with the foundation’s grants committee for about a year and looks forward to his new role as a trustee.

With an official start date in January, Wendling said he first heard he was being considered a month ago. Soon after, Wendling was nominated to the governance committee.

“I know they have a lot of projects, and I’m excited to get up to date on those projects and help them reach their goal,” Wendling said. “It’s a tremendous vote of confidence and a great opportunity to assist in the success in the Blue Water Area.”

Mossett has been involved with the foundation in other capacities in the past as well. A lawyer, she is the chairwoman of the Women’s Initiative Steering Committee.

“It’s something I had hoped would happen at some point because of how I feel about the Community Foundation,” Mossett said. “I didn’t hesitate when Randy (Maiers) and Donna (Niester) asked whether I would be interested in serving in that capacity. It is something that I had obviously hoped for.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 19, 2014)

McLaren Port Huron won’t hire tobacco users starting Jan. 1

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

The campaign against tobacco use is merging into the hiring process at McLaren Port Huron.

The hospital said Wednesday that, starting Jan. 1, it won’t hire people who use nicotine.

Ginger VanNuck, hospital spokeswoman, said the decision was made to create a healthier environment for the hospital’s caregivers, patients and visitors.

McLaren Port Huron, at 1221 Pine Grove Ave., already conducts a drug-testing panel for its employees during the pre-employment process. It will add a test to detect the presence of nicotine.

“Following the conditional offer of hire, an employee will be tested during the drug test,” VanNuck said. “The offer will be rescinded if nicotine is found. Those who test positive may quit smoking and reapply in six months.”

Current employees will not be affected by the new policy. However, VanNuck said the hospital will continue to offer resources to employees wishing to quit.

“We shared the info with employees this week, and we encourage employees to stop smoking,” VanNuck said. “One-on-one counseling is available for any employee who wishes to do so.”

All other McLaren subsidiaries enacted the same nicotine-free hiring policy Feb. 1, 2013, VanNuck said.

McLaren Port Huron became a smoke-free campus in 2007.

Products outside of cigarettes that contain nicotine also would be prohibited among applicants. VanNuck said that includes pipes, cigars, electronic cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

Employee health coordinator Pat St. Louis said the nicotine patch would show up on the screening as well. St. Louis explained that McLaren is actually testing for cotinine, which is found in tobacco and is a metabolite of nicotine.

Since the nicotine-hiring policy applies to new prospective employees, St. Louis said if any current employees were to transfer to another McLaren location, they would not be subject to the drug screen.

“In that scenario, they would be considered an internal candidate,” St. Louis said. “This policy is for new hires.”

The change in policy raises several questions, including if a new employee were to begin smoking again. VanNuck said the nicotine ban would apply to the initial hiring with no additional testing.

“We would only test once during the pre-employment process,” VanNuck said. “If nicotine does not show, that’s the only test that is given to employees.”

While the change in the hiring process is meant to create a healthy atmosphere, VanNuck said she is unsure of the immediate impact.

“It’s hard to tell; this is new to us,” she said. “I do know that lung cancer rates in this county are among the highest in the state. It kills more people in St. Clair County than alcohol, drug use and vehicle accidents combined.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 17, 2014)