From left, Patrick Marek and Greg Evans helped organize the 10 Days of Giving food drive campaign 30 years ago.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
For the first 10 days of December, hundreds of brightly colored green barrels will pop up across Winona, and for residents, that can only mean one thing –– 10 Days of Giving. The annual food drive run by Merchants Bank and Winona Volunteer Services (WVS) celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and starting on December 1, area residents are invited to donate food and funds to help stock the WVS shelf with food and supplies for months.
The event traces back to a brainstorming meeting in 1988, where Winona Post owner Patrick Marek, Merchants Bank President and CEO Greg Evans, and Bud Baechler, who owned Mediawerks, the advertising agency that provided marketing for the bank at the time.
Evans, who at that time was the newly hired media and marketing specialist, explained that he was still getting into the swing of things and wanted to find a signature event to define the bank for the town. “I’m newly hired, just starting to coordinate in my own mind the brand development responsibility that I had been handed with Merchants,” he explained. “I wanted to find a signature community service initiative that would lend profile and visibility to that fundamental aspect of the Merchants brand.”
Evans said that the idea of a food drive came up, and the group was sold immediately. Marek said that he felt lucky to have been there, having been brought in from his job running KWNO Radio to help brainstorm for a program. “I’ve always been an idea guy and I fell hard for this one,” Marek said. “The opportunity to feed hungry people at the holiday period of the year just felt right.”
At the time, Merchants was a fraction of the size it is today. Evans explained that in 1988, the bank had less than 60 full-time employees in two locations, and now has more than 450 across 21 locations in 19 different communities. In Winona alone, the bank has more than 200 employees, almost all of whom are involved in the initiative, as planners, organizers, and volunteers.
Over the past 29 years, the event has collected more than three million pounds of food for the food shelf at WVS. Last year alone, 207,898 pounds of food were donated during the 10-day drive. Evans explained that while food donations are needed, cash donations can go a long way –– every dollar donated equals two pounds of food for the shelf because it can leverage those dollars with bulk purchases.
Merchants has acted as the coordinator over the years, Evans said, but he noted the bank only deserves a bit of the credit.
“While Merchants was a catalyst, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Winona Volunteer Services has been an extraordinary partner and steward for the gifts received,” Evans said. “This spirit of giving is contributed to by hundreds of local businesses, the schools, the community … we take a great deal of pride in being a catalyst, but we’ve been very much a partner with everyone in the community.”
Aurea Osgood, board member at WVS and part-time volunteer explained that 10 Days of Giving is by far the organization’s largest fundraiser. Just in dollars raised, it is four times larger than any other drive, and five times as long.
“We’ve received more than 920,000 pounds over the past 10 years, including 320,000 pounds of food. That lets us feed 770 households monthly, and helps us with emergency food when families have already shopped for the month,” Osgood said. “We’re certainly very grateful.”
At WVS, the organization stays fairly quiet for the first nine days, letting the community do its work and fill up the barrels. But on the 10th day, the food shelf closes down and begins the laborious process of sorting and stocking the hundreds of barrels.
“We sort food for two full days –– a very exciting two days. We go from a food shelf where you can see from one side to the other, to something where you can’t even see over the top of the boxes,” Osgood said.
In its first year, 10 Days of Giving consisted of a trailer parked behind the bank where people would stop by and drop off cans and other non-perishable foods. Today, the drive receives more cash donations than ever before, and the fundraiser has become a full community event. According to Evans, since the program started, both Merchants and WVS have gone through changes, and looking back, those changes show plenty of growth.
“You go back 30 years and see how Merchants has grown, what’s almost as rewarding to me over the 30 years is the growth of [WVS],” Evans said.
Unlike other drives and fundraisers, 10 Days of Giving doesn’t provide a metric for what it needs to raise or gather. Instead, the drive keeps it simple.
“There’s never been a tangible goal. Their goal is to have nobody go hungry,” Marek said.
Ten Days of Giving is more than just a drive, Osgood explained. While it helps the food shelf stay stocked and give services to families in need, it also shows exactly what the Winona community is capable of.
“Food is important, we all need it, and we recognize the importance in having that food,” Osgood said. “This is what community does. It comes together to help those who need help.”
Donations of money or food can be made to any of the more than 100 participating schools, churches, daycares, businesses and Merchants Bank locations across Winona, St. Charles, Hastings, Rosemount, Woodbury, and Cottage Grove. For more information about 10 Days of Giving, including most needed items and a full list of donation locations, visit https://www.merchantsbank.com/10daysofgiving or call 800-944-6285.