BENNINGTON -- When Mike Davenport and his staff decided to raise funds for Purple Heart recipients through the Wounded Warriors in Action Foundation, as part of a company-wide charity project, he didn't know the huge amount of support it would generate, or that they would ultimately be writing a check for $22,889.
"Most of the people who work for me hunt and fish and do all that," said Davenport, plant manager at Vermont Container Corp., whose staff chose WWIA to benefit from their efforts in part because the national charity seeks to help veterans get back to doing what they enjoy - hunting and fishing in the great outdoors.
The idea to organize a charity project to give back to the community originally came from Hap Perkins, president of Unicorr Packaging Group, which is the parent company of Vermont Container Corp.
Perkins organized start-up funds for the Bennington manufacturer and each of her sister stores, with amounts given based on their sales dollars. As the smallest of five locations, Vermont Container received $2,000, far lower than the highest budget of $10,000.
"When we first sat down and talked about it, our goal was to raise $10,000," said Davenport, who has worked for the company the past 27 years and held weekly staff meetings to plan their fundraising efforts. The support the project received quickly exceeded expectations.
Davenport felt so strongly about the challenge and the organization he and his staff had chosen that he took out a personal loan of $12,000, using the funds to purchase a camouflaged 2013 Kawasaki 750 Teryx as a raffle prize. He also purchased a trailer for the winner to tow the two person side-by-side ATV.
"Wounded Warriors in Action helps veterans who may have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It helps get them back into a more normal life, by doing what they used to love," said Davenport, 44.
With more than 1,100 raffle tickets sold at $20 each, Davenport was able to pay off the loan and reach the original fundraising goal.
But the idea had already taken off, Davenport and his staff started receiving donations of money and other substantial gifts. They purchased more items and decided to organize a benefit dinner and silent auction, with use of the lodge donated by the Bennington Elks.
Tickets for the dinner sold at $25 per person, $40 per couple; and space nearly became standing room only.
When John McDaniel, the founder of WWIA, heard about their efforts he was so impressed by "the amazing turnout from a small community" he decided to attend the dinner, and flew in from Wisconsin to witness what had been nearly eight months in the making.
"When I heard about the amount of time and energy that was put into this for our heroes, I had to be here," said McDaniel, a retired Army officer who started the foundation in 2007. "Nobody's ever done anything on this scale before. What an honor."
As of last week, everything that had been purchased for the dinner, raffle and auction had been paid for, even before the auction was held. "We're already in the black. It's going to be all profit from here on out," said Davenport, whose employees cooked and served the prime rib and stuffed chicken dinner for 150 guests.
Prizes raffled off included a $5,000 credit with Tundratour, a package that allows the winner to choose a North American wilderness trip, such as to hunt sea ducks or go shark fishing; a $1,000 taxidermy gift certificate and an all expenses paid shopping trip to a retail outfitter in Maine, as well as six individually raffled guns. A donated hunt at Nictau Lodge in New Brunswick, Canada was one of the prizes included in the silent auction, which also included power tools, handmade furniture, spa treatments, framed artwork, wine and outdoor apparel.
"It was all worth it," said Davenport. "When I sit down and look at where we are and where we started I can't believe it."
Donations came in from Mass. and Conn., but the most amazing part, according to Davenport, is that most of the support came from local people in Bennington. "We're not really a wealthy community," he said. "The response from this community has been tremendous."
Arranged on the tables were custom made WWIA benefit dinner glassware and small gifts, as well as shirts and hats for sale, also to benefit the foundation.
Attending with his two young daughters, ages 6 and 2, Marine veteran Milo Surdam made it to the benefit Saturday night to support his brothers in the military.
"What they're doing to help our soldiers really backs up the boys coming home," said Surdam, 34, of Bennington.
"It's a good support system," Surdam said. "This is local hometown people, giving back to the souls who gave their courage and love to our country."
Wounded Warriors in Action is a nationwide nonprofit foundation, based in Apollo Beach, Florida. The WWIA serves our nation's combat-wounded Purple Heart recipients by providing world class outdoor sporting activities, according to their website.
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