The Murdock Trust invests in capacity-building projects at nonprofit organizations across the Pacific Northwest. When one grant helps create new opportunities and increases the impact of a nonprofit’s work down the line, we call it the ripple effect. The Stories of Impact series on our website helps shed light on the outcomes driven by some of the outstanding organizations the Murdock Trust has been fortunate to support in recent years.
On Christmas Eve 1923, a group of police officers and police reserves walked the streets of Portland delivering food to those who needed it. This collective kindness caught the attention of local media, who dubbed the group The Sunshine Boys.
101 years later, Sunshine Division continues to spread kindness and meet needs in Portland, only now it does so year-round through two food pantries, 20 full-time staff, and hundreds of volunteers. In a meaningful homage to its roots in the holiday season, Sunshine Division’s primary annual fundraiser is the Winter Wonderland light show, made possible through community partnerships and a Portland that shows up every holiday season to give.
A Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity
When Kyle Camberg became Sunshine Division’s first civilian executive director in 2011, it was to lead a staff of seven working long hours and pinching pennies to meet needs on Portland streets. They needed an annual event to capture the community’s attention and raise funds and awareness for their work. When the previous head of the Winter Wonderland light show, a beloved Portland tradition and longtime partner of Sunshine Division, approached Kyle in 2013 with an offer to take over the event as a fundraiser, Kyle nearly had to turn it down.
“I had to be honest and say, ‘There’s no way we could be in any position to do that. We’re saving our nickels and pennies just to get by,’” said Kyle. “Then, as fate would have it, we were introduced to the Murdock Trust.”
As Kyle admitted, applying for lights show equipment as a food pantry service organization was no traditional application. By all accounts it was a risky project given the nonprofit’s small size and the huge undertaking of running one of Portland’s largest light shows. But because of Sunshine Division’s careful planning, community partnerships, and innovative vision of sustainable growth, in 2014 Murdock Trust Trustees approved a grant for $278,000 toward the new equipment that could make this vision a reality.
“It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Kyle, “It was one of the first dominoes that really profoundly changed our organization.”
Lighting the Way Forward
“Immediately after we got the equipment in place and took over the show, our general fundraising increased,” says Kyle. “Our holiday food collection increased. And we had the largest media platform we’d ever had during the holiday season.”
November and December are when volunteering and donations peak, so it is a critical period for organizations like Sunshine Division to draw donations and awareness that sustains them past the holidays. After all, hunger is a year-round problem.
Thanks to this massive new platform during these critical months, Sunshine Division was able to start expanding its team. In 2017, two years after running its first lights show, the nonprofit opened a second food pantry in East Portland. This is now its busiest location.
“We now have a model for how to grow our organization,” says Kyle. “We know exactly what it costs to open a new pantry. And that’s the hope for the future – that we can continue to grow and model after that.”
Feeding Portland Together
Winter Wonderland not only helped the nonprofit increase fundraising exponentially, but it also opened doors to new community partnerships.
“We got a much closer relationship with Safeway, one of the largest grocery chains in Oregon,” explains Kyle. “And if you’re a food relief organization, that’s a very important thing to do.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Safeway offered Sunshine Division a vacant grocery store in Northeast Portland as a warehouse. From there, the nonprofit launched a home delivery program that, through a partnership with the Portland Police Department, was staffed with police officers in training who couldn’t complete their final accreditation due to pandemic delays. Sunshine Division even teamed up with Hood to Coast, whose iconic races were put on pause in 2020, to understand how to launch a registration system for thousands that allowed anyone to help bring food to homes in critical need. Three and a half years and 100,000 doorsteps later, the home delivery program is one of Sunshine Division’s most impactful services. And it’s thanks to a chain of partnerships that started with Winter Wonderland.
“Over the course of this year, we will probably interface with and support around 200 social service entities, giving them access to food or clothing so that they can directly help someone,” says Kyle. “Because we know that hunger is not owned by any one entity. It’s something the government works on. It’s something nonprofits work on. It’s something schools work on. In our case, we even get first responders to help us with it. At least in terms of hunger, there is no magic bullet.”
Brightening Portland Streets
In 2019, approximately 330 people visited the Sunshine Division food pantry weekly. In 2023, there were multiple weeks where more than 2,000 people were fed.
“We’re feeding four to five times as many people on a weekly basis,” says Kyle. “There’s simply no way we would have had the capacity to do that if not for Winter Wonderland all those years ago.”
Some of this impact can be measured, like the exponential growth in individuals served or the $7.5 million the lights show has generated for Sunshine Division. But what can’t be measured is the holiday cheer that Winter Wonderland illuminates for every family that visits, or the relief of every parent who realizes their children will be fed for one more night.
“A box of food doesn’t save the world,” says Kyle. “But in that moment it absolutely does.”
Sunshine Division, thank you for saving the world one box of food at a time, and for showing us all what it means to truly partner with those around us for what matters most. Happy 100 years of brightening Portland streets and hearts!