Kiwanis brings the spirit of giving

Every year, the Kiwanis Club of Friday Harbor is in the background at Christmas time, filling in the gaps of children and families’ needs.

“Kiwanis is a wonderful group,” Kiwanis Club President David Eden said. “We are a quiet group and we are usually doing stuff in the background. … Our mission is to help kids who need it.”

According to Kiwanis member Stephanie Johnson O’Day, “the Kiwanis Club is all about children.”

Kiwanis is a national service club that is more than 105 years old. It has a chapter located on San Juan Island but began in Michigan in 1915 with two businessmen — Allen S. Browne and Joseph G. Prance. It originally started as a fraternal organization for young professional businessmen, according to the club’s website.

“They traded ideas back and forth and helped each other run their businesses,” Eden explained. “Then they decided to start a club.”

Every year, the Friday Harbor Kiwanis hosts a project with the Joyce Sobel Family resource Center wherein people donate to the Kiwanis Christmas Basket. The resource center helps to identify families who may not have the resources to provide gifts to their children during the holiday season, Kiwanis Treasurer Jack Rice explained.

“Then we buy presents for the kids to match what the kids need and want,” Rice said. “We try to buy locally, and then go off-island if we need to.”

For about 30 years, Gina Sandwith has overseen the project — including signing up families, shopping and sorting the gifts. Sandwith, whose service has earned her the moniker of Mrs. Claus, will personally deliver the gifts to households on Dec. 23.

“There have been times when we’ve had over 100 kids, and 50 families,” Sandwith said. “I deliver to the families, and it is a lot of work, but it gets done!”

Rice added, “It’s a huge undertaking. You can imagine what it is to shop for 25 families and try to get specific items to match what the kids need. Gina deserves all the credit, she is definitely a trooper.”

The pandemic has not affected the group’s ability to get items to the children who need it, Sandwith added. She added that this year, because of COVID, she made many purchases online. However, she continued that the islands’ support has been unchanged.

“The community response this year is great! That is the happy fact. People have been calling and asking, how many kids and families need help, and what do they need?” Sandwith said. “We just want to be sure that the kids have a good Christmas! That’s our goal. … Whatever they need, Santa Delivers.”

One Christmas, Sandwith brought two Christmas trees for families in need.

“I delivered them because that’s what I do! There were these kids just waiting inside for me to bring the trees, they were so excited,” Sandwith explained. “I just cry when I know I’m helping. I feel so satisfied when I know I’m helping the community reach these kids.”

This year, Rice explained, Kiwanis was aided by a $16,000 award from the Honeywell Charitable Fund, which it will put toward assisting Friday Harbor High School seniors. The foundation’s founders reside on San Juan Island, he added. Over the years, Rice continued, Kiwanis has awarded more than 100 scholarships to local seniors totaling more than $88,000.

“This award from the Honeywell Foundation frees up more money for the Christmas Project,” Rice said.

Johnson O’Day added, “Thanks to community donations, and especially the help of the Honeywell Foundation, Christmas morning will be a little brighter for 25 island families.”