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Dribble of donations takes wind out of Relief Sale

The region's severe economic downturn has cast a pall over one of its largest and most revered charitable events, the yearly Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale set for Saturday at the Elkhart County 4-H Fairgrounds.

The sale, with annual proceeds of about $400,000, is one of nearly 50 such events in the United States and Canada that together raise more than $5 million a year to support the Mennonite Central Committee, the faith's global relief program that provides aid to victims of natural disasters, war and poverty.

Merchandise for the sales, from furniture to apple butter, is all donated by members and friends of the church and businesses, and "a lot of the donations that businesses typically make have been very, very low," said David Yoder, chairman of the Michiana sale's board of directors.

Last year, Yoder was busily counting donated items that filled two storage units months before the auction. This year, with two days to go, he has one unit only half-full. As a result, a popular silent auction that is part of the sale has been canceled.

The other traditional auctions, of new and used goods, children's items, antiques and quilts, will go on. But donations of antiques have also been "very low," Yoder said, and pickings will be slim as well at the children's auction. "A lot of people are wondering how it's going to go."

The bright spot may be the quilt auction. Perhaps the most popular auction at the sale and a big moneymaker, the quilt auction features scores of stunning needleworks created and donated by sewing circles and solo quilters. Quilt donations "are actually up this year" from the normal range of 250, Yoder said, with as many as 340 traditional quilts, comforters and wall hangings set to go on the auction block.

But Yoder is also concerned about how generous the hoped-for 25,000 to 30,000 sale-goers will prove to be. Despite the wealth of donations last year, which poured in as the local economy still seemed relatively healthy, the relief sale itself came right on the heels of Wall Street's meltdown. In that climate, "a lot of items went for dirt cheap," Yoder said. "People were buying things for a song. Everyone wanted to get a garage-sale price or a cheap price, not realizing this is a benefit auction."

Still, the sheer volume of goods, along with income from food concessions, kept the decline in revenue to about 5 from the previous year.

This year, with far fewer items to sell and unemployment in the county still at 16 percent, the effect on the bottom line could be much worse, although Yoder is thinking positive. "I'm concerned," he said, "but I'm optimistic."