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Dashing to make spirits bright: A 'very, very busy' time for Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells volunteers decorate trees Wednesday on the Lake Geneva Christian Center stage for Saturday's telethon. Shown are (from left) Tracey Olson (on ladder) of Alexandria, Kayla Velon of Wheaton, Annette Brown of St. Cloud, Becky Lloyd (telethon chairwoman) and Diana Burnett of Alexandria. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)1 / 2
Mike Schreiner2 / 2

'Twas two days before Jingle Bells, when all through the night,

volunteers were shopping to buy gifts that were just right...

That's just one item volunteers for the Alexandria Jingle Bells Telethon will cross off their to-do list before the program airs live this Saturday, Dec. 8, from the Lake Geneva Christian Center.

"This is a very, very busy week for the volunteers to get everything ready," said Jingle Bells Foundation member Mike Schreiner, who handles public relations.

The telethon raises money for families in need over the holidays. Money raised from the five-hour live TV show goes to purchase food and toys for nearly 900 families each December, along with other support throughout the year.

This year's goal is to raise $90,000.

A lot left to do

When the newspaper interviewed Schreiner on Tuesday afternoon, there was still a lot of work to be done.

On Wednesday, volunteers had to take holiday decorations out of storage and get the stage set up, complete with Christmas trees, garland and thousands of lights.

On Thursday night, volunteer dropped off bins in local businesses where people can place donated items. Then it was time to shop for toys, gift cards and gift certificates.

"We try to spread that around a bit," Schreiner said.

On Friday night, volunteers were expected to gather at H. Boyd Nelson warehouse and start organizing toy areas by grouping certain items together, such as toys for 9-year-old girls, which could be easily sorted for delivery truck routes.

On Saturday morning, another wave of volunteers will go to the warehouse and start bagging all the items up.

Then there's the telethon itself — making sure everything's good to go when the cameras start rolling at 5 p.m.

After the show, volunteers tear down the set, and early the next morning, they will meet again at the warehouse to pack the delivery trucks and distribute baskets to families within a 45-mile radius of Alexandria — a process that Schreiner described as organized chaos.

A 70-year tradition

But year after year, it all gets done — thanks to a small core group of volunteers who do the planning, hundreds of others who lend a hand along the way and untiring support from the community, Schreiner said.

It's a formula that's been working for 70 years.

"The number one reason it's been going on so long is the community — the support from the people who live here and all those who donate," Schreiner said. "We wouldn't be able to do this without their donations and time."

So many people are involved in the process, he couldn't give a precise estimate of the number of volunteers, other than to say, "there are hundreds, for sure."

There are major donations from big companies to small gestures of support from everyday folks who give $5 or $10. There are also the familiar faces of long-time emcees like Joe Korkowski, who dedicate a lot of time and energy to the event.

"It's incredible how they keep it going year after year," Schreiner said.

And there are those who help the event in their own unique ways. Schreiner's mother, for instance, puts up flyers on bulletin boards of local businesses.

Jingle Bells also has many partners, such as H. Boyd Nelson for free use of its warehouse, and the Lake Geneva Christian Center, the site of the telethon.

This year's show

Jingle Bells was fortunate to have a great turnout for its auditions this year. Thirty acts auditioned in the first round and 25 in the second round for the 35 spots available during the show.

"We have a lot of new people this year," Schreiner said. "It's good to see some fresh faces. We have a good mixture of different talent — lot of variety."

Proud history

Since the Alexandria Jaycees began the program back in 1949, more than $2.5 million has been raised to provide food and toys for families during the holidays.

Other historical highlights from the Jingle Bells website:

Ken Bechtel brought the idea to Alexandria in the late 1940s and it stuck. He told his fellow owners of KXRA radio that this "telethon" could really help out people in need during a tough time of the year. The president of the Alexandria Jaycees at the time, Julian Newhouse, made the commitment for his organization to help the radio station run it.

That first year the Jaycees raised close to $500, and now the program generates close to $100,000 each year. That translates to tens of thousands of people being helped over the telethon's 70 years.

The telethon moved to television in 1958 with the creation of a local television station, KCMT. In order to accommodate the live audiences that longed for the entertainment, the Jaycees and KCMT/KXRA held the telethon in the State and Andria theaters. The telethon eventually made its way back into the KCMT studio.

For the 50th anniversary, it was brought back into a setting where not only the people at home could watch, but also those who wanted to see it "live" and in person at the AAAA Theater. Shortly after that, KCCO-TV ceased local operations and the telethon found a new home in KSAX-TV.

The telethon switched locations again, moving to the Lake Geneva Christian Center, which provides the Jaycees with ample room for audiences to watch the live production and allows for more space to accompany 30-plus acts, a dozen phone bank groups, volunteers and all that's needed to run a telethon of this magnitude.

In June 2012, the Jaycees learned that KSAX-TV was no longer able to provide local programming. For several years, Jason Hirsch and his company, Excellent Multimedia, picked up the ball and produced the show. It was supplied to various cable and broadcast channels throughout the lakes area, as well as streamed live on the foundation's website.

Steve Kneprath of KPS Media is now in charge of the production and distribution of its signal. It continues to be broadcast on a number of different sources, including the live stream on the Jingle Bells Foundation website.

Donate now

There are many ways to donate to Jingle Bells:

• Go to the website — www.jinglebellsalexandria.org — and click on the "Donate" link to pay via credit card.

• Call 320-762-0505 during the telethon to make a pledge.

• Send a check to: Jingle Bells Foundation, P.O. Box 635, Alexandria, MN 56308.

Where to watch

There are also a variety of ways to watch the telethon, which takes place from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday:

• Go to the Lake Geneva Christian Center, 605 Birch Ave. It's free.

• Go to the website, www.jinglebellsalexandria.org (via YouTube live streaming).

• Or watch the broadcast on one of these outlets — Charter Cable Channel 181, Selective TV Channel 21.4, Gardonville Channel 4, Park Region Channel 1, Runestone Telecom Channel 6, Arvig Channel 14.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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