The Great Recession dragged on, and the Howard Volunteer Fire Company in central Pennsylvania was in dire financial shape. Fundraising had dwindled. Its meager savings account was depleted after withdrawals from it for three straight years just to pay the bills. “At the end of one year, we had 94 cents in our checking account,” said George Demchak, who volunteers as a fire police officer and rescue vehicle driver. “Our rescue truck was so old, it didn’t have seatbelts.”
Demchak knew something had to be done. Otherwise, the 120-year-old company might have had to disband, as was the case with so many volunteer fire companies around the country in similar straits. One possible solution: a festival fundraiser if they could come up with a compelling attraction to draw supporters. The lucky break occurred when Demchak saw a television program about something called “punkin chunkin’,” a niche sport in which pumpkins are launched into the air via hand-built catapults, trebuchets, torsions, and other hurling machines. Voilà!, he thought.
Demchak presented the idea to company leaders. First they laughed, and then they told him to make it happen.
The first Howard Volunteer Fire Company Punkin Chunkin’ Fall Festival was in October 2011 at nearby Bald Eagle State Park. Demchak solicited sponsors, food and craft vendors, musicians, hayride wagons, two chunking machines, and dozens of helpers. All day long, pumpkins were sent flying toward the lake, where they landed with huge splashes. Demchak had hoped 500 people might attend. To everyone’s surprise and delight, the event drew 9,000 chunkin’ enthusiasts.
The excitement continues to grow. Annual attendance now averages 18,000, and the event now attracts a dozen chunking machines procured from across the country. Total funds raised over the past four years: $115,000, accounting for up to one-third of the company’s annual budget. This year’s event will be held October 17.
“It’s just silly fun, but purposeful,” Demchak said. “The fire company is a small organization. We need about $120,000 a year just to break even. Fundraising is an important component of what we do to keep the doors open and the apparatus running.”
Many people don’t realize that the company has to come up with its own funding, he said. “Every year we struggle to keep ourselves viable. George has done a lot to help us keep our heads above water,” said company president Mark Ott. “He’s calm and thoughtful, and he often comes up with an angle we haven’t thought of.”
Howard is a rural community of about 1,000 residents located 23 miles from State College, Pa., home of Penn State University. The 50-member, all-volunteer company provides firefighting, quick response, and emergency rescue services within a 50-mile radius and helps out when neighboring companies need it. The 20 or so calls a month include building and brush fires, vehicle accidents, water rescues, heart attacks, and downed utility wires. Demchak, a 10-year volunteer, goes out on about half the calls. “Volunteering gives me a sense of lending a hand and helping out,” he said. “Everyone has something to offer. We can all find a place we fit where we can contribute.”
Heart of the Community
The company also is a hub for the community’s social needs. The station house is equipped with a commercial kitchen and an evacuation shelter that doubles as a banquet hall. It also hosts barbecues, pig roasts, and music jams. The public can rent the space for a nominal fee for weddings, memorial services, club meetings, and other events. “The fire company is really the heart of our community,” Demchak said.
The company receives a small amount of municipal funding for equipment but is responsible for covering about 85 percent of its total costs, including building mortgage, utilities, upkeep, and payments and maintenance on three vehicles. Outfitting a volunteer costs $3,000 without breathing and vision apparatus. State grants enabled the replacement of three aging vehicles but covered only half of the cost. The 25-year-old rescue vehicle was traded in for another that was merely 15 years old. Other purchases, like $1,500 for a new hose nozzle, must be put on hold.
The festival not only provides essential income to the company but also sends positive economic ripples throughout the area. The state park sells out occupancy at its campsites and hotel. Food and craft vendors earn money. A farmer donates the ornamental pumpkins; volunteers scoop the shattered remains from the lake and return them to the farmer, who feeds them to his pigs. And everyone has a smashing good time.
The benefits of having a volunteer fire company extend to all residents, even those who never need to use the emergency services, said Howard Council President Philip Winchell. “If they didn’t exist as a volunteer organization in our community, the cost of fire insurance and real estate taxes would be much higher for the residents,” he said.
Organizing the festival—and making sure the park is cleaned up afterward—takes hundreds of hours of Demchak’s time, especially during the summer and fall months. That’s in addition to keeping up with his real estate business. “You make time for what is important to you,” Demchak said. “Technology has made all of this more possible. I can be answering calls, texts, and e-mails while standing lakeside hurling test shots into the lake.”
One of the festival’s most enthusiastic sponsors is his own brokerage, KKB. Partner and sales manager Janice Graci said they are happy to contribute. “We are so proud of George,” she said. “It’s easy for REALTORS® to say here’s $50 for this or $100 for that. It’s difficult to carve out time for the community without hurting your own business or robbing your family of whatever free time you might have. George is a very cheerful, positive, happy man, and his attitude is always, ‘we’ll find a way to make this work.’”
Ott says he’s grateful for Demchak’s efforts. “Fundraising is a lot of work, but I’ll take every penny. A lot of nonprofits are asking for money, but when your house is on fire, you’ll be glad we’re there.”
Contact George Demchak at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more information about The Howard Punkin Chunkin’ Fall Festival on Facebook.