Roadside cleanup

McLoughlin High Schools’ Key Club President Megan Norton works to fill her bag as part of a recent roadway cleanup by the club. The student service organization does a number of community projects throughout the school year and will host its first walk-a-thon on Saturday to raise money for local utilities assistance.

This story has been modified since its initial publication to reflect a correction.

MILTON-FREEWATER — If Jennifer Hammer had her druthers, Saturday would be a whole lot colder.

Current forecasts by the National Weather Service call for temperatures to hover at about 45 degrees at 9 a.m. that day, and that’s too warm for what Hammer hopes to accomplish.

The McLoughlin High School social studies teacher is also adviser to the school’s Key Club, the junior branch of Kiwanis International.

Like the senior service organization, Key Club members have facilitated a number of projects benefiting the Milton-Freewater community, Hammer said.

This Saturday the students are hosting Key Club’s first “Walk for Warmth,” a walk-a-thon fundraiser to help Milton-Freewater residents who need assistance keeping the lights on and the house heated in winter weather.

All money raised will go the city’s fund; that money then gets matched and administered by the Walla Walla Salvation Army, said Dave Richmond, the city’s finance manager.

If the thermometer drops to a more wintry low, it would afford walk-a-thon participants an opportunity to more fully understand what a lack of heat can feel like, Hammer said.

“Hence, the name of the walk,” she said, noting the idea came from the sociology department at Eastern Oregon University, which came to talk to Mac-Hi students last year.

Richmond said a number of Milton-Freewater households feel the effect of not having heat every year.

The hope is to prevent families from reaching that point. City staff and ministerial leaders are joined in that effort, he said.

“It’s definitely a community effort,” he said.

Last year, the utility-assistance fund — Milton-Freewater keeps its donated dollars separate from the stateside nonprofit Oregon Energy Assistance Program to keep things local — paid out an average of $129 to 70 customers, totaling about $9,000. Half of that came from donations to the assistance program, and the city’s program matched the amount, Richmond said.

“We do have some very generous customers, and people can donate anytime,” he said.

The city sends out donation requests once a year with utility bills. That said, with more people switching to direct bill pay, those requests might not be getting as noticed. Saturday’s Walk for Warmth will be a way to bring attention to an issue people can easily help out with, Richmond said.

The fundraiser fits well with Key Club’s mission. Founded in 1925, it is the oldest and largest service program for high school students. A chapter was established at Mac-Hi in the 1990s, Hammer said.

In Hammer’s five years as adviser, club members have taken on a range of philanthropic activities, including providing school supplies to students in need, sending food home with high school and elementary students who are at risk of otherwise being hungry, and helping with area events. Key Club also has assisted with cleanup along the Walla Walla River and planted trees by the river’s banks, she said.

No matter how Saturday’s weather turns out, Hammer hopes the fundraiser warms hearts.

The idea of residents needing energy assistance is foreign to students who have never experienced a utility shut off, she said, but she knows of Mac-Hi kids who have lived through those. If a few laps around the school’s track can help prevent those instances, Key Club will have met its mission, Hammer said.

“I like to shoot for the stars, so I’m hoping for $500 to $700,” she said.

For more information about applying for utility assistance through the city of Milton-Freewater, call Walla Walla’s Salvation Army at 529-9470.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.