JONESBORO, Ark. On a December evening, a crowd of several hundred men and women walk the inside perimeter of the ROTC Armory on the campus of Arkansas State University, inspecting the goods.
There's a lot to look at; raffle items, plus items for live and silent auction everything from the Duck Buggy, a brand new Jeep fully camoed and equipped with high-tech spotlights and a boat rack, to a certificate for Lasik eye surgery, to a brand new Sharp copier.
But mostly you see things like shotguns, decoys, blind bags, dog stands and the like. Duck hunting is the theme here, because duck hunting is the vehicle that carries the largest single charitable fund raising event for money that stays in Jonesboro and the surrounding communities.
This is auction and pairings night at the NEA Clinic Charitable Foundation Duck Classic. It's the sixth annual edition of the event, which raised about 250,000 dollars last year, according to Jim Boswell, CEO of the Clinic. Boswell says the idea for the event came in part from a one shot turkey hunt in Tennessee that had been successful in a similar mission.
"We would be thrilled to raise a quarter million dollars again this year", says Boswell. "That would be great in light of the current economic situation."
Prospects look good to achieve that goal. Boswell says there's already 60,000 dollars in this year's kitty from sponsorships sold, and 50,000 dollars collected from the 30 teams who will compete in the duck hunt the next day. What's raised tonight from the auctions and raffles will round out the rest of this year's total.
The dollars will go to fund four key programs that the clinic's charitable foundation operates for the community, programs that provide everything from free prescriptions from pharmaceutical companies for patients in need to counseling and exercise programs for patients and families battling catastrophic illnesses.
The money raised by the Duck Classic makes a huge difference in this northeast Arkansas town of around 60 thousand people, surrounded by smaller farming communities. And, according to NEA Charitable Foundation executive director Holly Acebo, with the clinic and scores of volunteers covering the costs of the fundraising, every dollar goes to work for the patients and families.
Interestingly, the number of teams in the hunt this year has been reduced from over forty to thirty this time around. This is on purpose, says Jim Boswell, in order to keep the quality of the hunts high.
Each team of four hunters pays $1,500 dollars for the hunt. Each member is limited to one box of shotgun shells and all the ducks bagged in the half day hunt have been assigned a points value. The team with the most points wins, with ties going to the team that calls in the high score first.
The score is called in by the landowner or outfitter who escorts the team to the hunting site that they will draw tonight right after the auction. These landowners and hosts are, of course, an important part of the formula, and, according to Boswell, there is a growing but friendly rivalry among them to see who can get the bragging rights that come with hosting the winning team.
That's true, says Charles Petty of Harrisburg, Arkansas, one of the outfitters who will be hosting a hunt.
"There is some competition involved, but everyone also understands that this is for the community first and foremost," he says. "What we have to do is make sure that it's a fun hunt for everyone."
To that end, Petty has rested the site for tomorrow's hunt for a full week.
As the night wears on, the auctioneer has to keep turning up the volume to be heard over the socializing hunters, sponsors and volunteers. There's lots to talk about, apparently. But the auction is proceeding and big bucks are being brought in.
It looks as though the organization has again found a way to sound a note that resonates with the community and its roots. And here in Jonesboro, that note is sounded on a duck call.