On the first Saturday in December each year, the Butte Emergency Food Bank "is as close to Santa's Workshop as you'll ever see," Margie Thompson says.
That's the day of the annual Thompson Distributing Citywide Food Drive. And given that, it's impossible to avoid the fact that Margie and her husband Jim are Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the whole affair. With the help of a whole lot of elves.
They started the project in 1989 "as a way to give back" to the community that made their business work, Jim Thompson said.
This Saturday will mark the 29th year that Thompson Distributing has run the food drive, which has grown into the largest single-day food drive in the state.
"It'll be organized chaos" at the Race Track Fire Hall on Saturday, says Scott Thompson, Jim and Margie's son, who has coordinated the logistics for the event for the past two decades. "Volunteers will be meeting up with the volunteer fire departments, and we'll be assigning people to their routes.
"My phone will be going off about every 30 seconds."
The logistics are truly daunting, but Scott is nothing if not organized. He's gone from handwritten notes to computer-kept lists of routes and volunteers.
Here's a community event that has grown to the point where two percent of the entire population of Butte volunteers for it — some 700 people out of the town's population of around 35,000.
Volunteers include Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Butte High students, Butte Central students, Montana Tech students, the volunteer fire departments, the 15-90 Search and Rescue, and many, many more organizations and individuals.
That first year of the drive, the Thompsons picked up food from a fairly limited area of town. It took all day, and they collected approximately 10,000 pounds of food and $2,000 in cash.
That was great. But to illustrate how much the drive has grown over the years, consider last year's numbers: 70,000 pounds of food and about $43,000 in cash collected — in around two hours.
For the Butte Emergency Food Bank, the drive is a godsend.
"This food drive is so valuable to us," said Kathy Griffith, director of the food bank. "We just can't thank the community enough."
The timing is perfect. "Shelves are low right now due to Thanksgiving. We gave out 900 turkeys and everything that goes with them, so lots of people had a good Thanksgiving. But this drive will restock us and carry us through until the postal workers' drive in May."
The cash contributions are really important, she said, because the food bank "can leverage that cash" into much more food than people could buy individually.
She pointed out that the event, after 29 years, is ingrained in the community's culture. "And we love that we have young people involved, so they can see the importance of helping people," Griffith said.
Thompson Distributing has a new partner this year — Harrington Bottling Co., Pepsi distributors and long one of Butte's most active businesses in community service.
"When Scott (Thompson) came down and visited with me about it, I said immediately, ‘Gosh, Scott, you guys have done such a nice job with this project, how could we not help?’ " said Jim Bennett, Harrington's vice president for sales and marketing.
Bennett said, "This being our first year, obviously we had to call for volunteers from our employees. We got an overwhelming response. I still have employees asking me if there's still time to get involved."
Bennett said the event is perfectly aligned with the company's own culture.
"The Harrington family has always done so much in Butte — Don and now his daughter Lynn (Harrington Hirschy) — and so this was something we were all very excited about doing.
"As employees we love the chance to give back. It's heartwarming, for the company and for me personally."
Harrington's employee Amy Hopewell and her family have volunteered for the drive in past years, so this will be nothing new. "My son loves it," she said.
So both Thompson Distributing and Harrington Bottling will have semitrailers and delivery trucks out on Saturday, in addition to the volunteer fire department's engines.
"It's a win-win-win," said Jim Thompson. "We feel good about giving, the food bank gets what it needs, and the recipients are the real winners."
For the Thompsons, it doesn't get old.
"It's just the best feeling," Margie said. The same goes for Scott, his brother Mark, and his wife Mary. Scott's sons, Josh and Ryan, are involved now too.
"It won't be long until we have a fourth generation participating," Jim said.
That would be Josh's 2-year-old son Wyatt and his sister Gabby.
"Maybe in a couple years," Scott said.
He's probably already planning which routes they'll take.