The Sunshine Division, an organization providing food and clothing relief to Portland families and individuals in need since 1923 and Trust grantee, was recently featured in an article in the Portland Tribune written by Jim Redden.
For 22 years, the annual Winter Wonderland Holiday Light Show at Portland International Raceway has been one of the region’s most popular holiday events. More than 100,000 people are expected to travel through the dazzling 2-mile-long course this year alone.
Many of the displays have Christmas and holiday themes. The lights on some are sequenced, making them appear to move. Visitors returning from previous years will notice a few changes, including some new displays and brighter lights in others.
But the big changes are behind the scenes, and they signify more to come — both at future shows and with its owner and operator, the charitable Sunshine Division. The nonprofit organization purchased the show shortly before it opened for its monthlong run last year. According to Executive Director Kyle Camberg, since then it has become the organization’s top fundraiser by far, already generating enough revenue to begin upgrading the show and planning to expand the Sunshine Division’s food and clothing giveaway operations.
“We’re hopeful we will net $100,000 this year,” Camberg says. “It’s a lot of work, but people are excited to learn that a nonprofit organization is now benefiting from it.”
Today, the Sunshine Division provides more than 15,600 households a year with free food and clothing, in addition to making bulk donations of food to more than 15 other food-relief agencies in five counties in the region.
That is a far cry from its humble origins when, after the economy faltered in 1922 and city revenues dropped, the Portland Police Bureau had to lay off around 40 officers. Then-Mayor George Baker responded by recruiting citizen volunteers to help out poverty-stricken Portlanders. Among other things, they collected food that was delivered to residents in need around Christmas.
The group was quickly dubbed “George Baker’s Sunshine Boys.” The early KGW radio variety show “Hoot Owls” took up the cause, devoting a segment — also known as a division — of the program to soliciting donations of food and funds from listeners for the group, resulting in the name Sunshine Division.
By the time Christmas of 1923 approached, uniformed police joined the volunteers collecting food and delivering it to hungry families.
The effort soon found a home on the second floor of the East Precinct station at Southeast Seventh Avenue and Alder Street. In 1938, it moved into a recently vacated police precinct station at 38 N.E. Russell St. It incorporated as a separate nonprofit organization in the 1950s. The bylaws require that its board of directors always include a liaison from the police bureau appointed by the chief.
Over nine decades, the Sunshine Division expanded into a year-round operation. It moved into its current location at 687 N. Thompson St. in 1975. The large building serves as a warehouse, a food and clothing distribution center, and administrative headquarters for what is now a $6 million a year organization.
The Sunshine Division also fills food boxes that sit in reserve at all police precincts to meet the needs of families in crisis that officers encounter on the job.
“A lot of times when something terrible happens, the police are the first ones on the scene. Women and children are frequently impacted by what has happened, and being able to provide them with food and clothing can be a big help. To my knowledge, there’s no nonprofit organization started by a police agency in the country still plays such a vital role in the lives of its officers,” Camberg says.
Twelve years ago, as part of its fundraising efforts, the Sunshine Division became a beneficiary of the Winter Wonderland Holiday Light Show. Over the years, the organization collected $50,000 and 49 tons of food from the show. During that time, it was owned and operated by the for-profit Global Events Group, which had started it.
According to Camberg, last year owner Mike Nealy let it be known he was interested in selling the show. With its proven track record, Sunshine Division quickly decided it could be a significant fundraising opportunity and submitted a grant request to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust to buy it. The foundation awarded the organization $278,000, which covered most of the purchase price.
The sale was completed in late September 2015. It included nearly 300 steel frame displays, hundreds of thousands of light bulbs, operating manuals, and the show’s website. Many of the existing employees immediately agreed to continue work on it. Nealy consulted on it.
“The first year was a real learning experience because we immediately had to rent the track and begin setting it up. Like this year, around a dozen people worked six weeks on that, and then a crew of five or so staffed it for 31 days. We had to hire ticket takers and pay volunteer groups a stipend to direct traffic along the course,” Camberg says.
Then there’s the weather, which can topple the displays if they are not properly secured.
“Wind, rain, snow — the show has to function in all of that,” Camberg says.
After the end of last year’s show, the Sunshine Division decided to add some new displays and begin replacing the existing lights with LED light to increase their brightness and reduce energy costs. Camberg says the upgrades will increase in coming years.
But more than that, Camberg says the predictable revenue from the annual show will allow the Sunshine Division to open a second food and clothing warehouse somewhere near the border between Portland and Gresham, where many of the region’s lowest-income households are concentrating because of its lower housing costs.
“We are planning to begin looking for a location in January, present the board of directors with a proposal in the first quarter of the year, and open it in the second quarter if all goes well,” Camberg says.
For more information on the Sunshine Division, visit their website here