HUNTINGDON - What started as a small gesture 11 years ago to boost morale among the staff at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield has grown into an annual tradition.
More than $115,000 has been raised to grant one child's wish every Christmas and to give back to the community.
The Child of Dreams project was started as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation 11 years ago; most of the 500-member staff chipped in to donate gifts and buy drawing tickets, and the group ended up raising enough money to fund one child's wish - and then some.
That's the way it's been for more than a decade.
"This was our best year ever," said project chairman Sgt. George Yartin, who said the staff this holiday season raised $14,500, topping last year's record of $12,900.
This year's wish child is 4-year-old Savannah Boyer of Sproul, who was born with polycystic kidney disease. She and her family were gifted a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where they will spend a week in February.
From its first year, the project has raised enough to make one child's wish come true with several thousand dollars to spare, and the staff is always looking for new incentives to raise more.
Sgt. Tom Workinger, a corrections officers with a full head of hair, promised that if the staff raised $1,000, he would have his head shaved.
The money went toward the Clay Bishop Foundation, started for a 16-year-old Raystown Lake drowning victim from Huntingdon. It took several days in August for rescue crews to find Bishop's body because there were no underwater cameras available to rescue workers, Yartin said.
The Marklesburg Volunteer Fire Company has a long way to go to fund the $115,000 camera, according to Yartin, but Workinger said it was important to raise awareness that local organizations need the community to pitch in.
"Just the feeling when they [Bishop's father and Marklesburg's president] got up and spoke ... it was such a small price to pay for the impact," Workinger said.
Yartin said the extra money also helps to aid other important community causes throughout the area.
Some of this year's donations included: $1,000 to FROGGY 98's "Christmas Carol" project, $1,000 to Pleasant Union Church Food Pantry in Bedford, 56 backpacks filled with school supplies donated to Huntingdon County Children and Youth Services, 35 Giving Dolls made by volunteers in Ohio to comfort kids during times of crisis and gift packages to Hollidaysburg Veterans Home residents.
"We rotate our projects around" and sponsor Make-A-Wish children in different counties, along with food pantries and other causes in surrounding areas where staff lives, Yartin said, so they can give back to the areas where they go home to every day.
After 19 years at Smithfield, Yartin said his retirement this month will be bittersweet, but he was glad to have done something good for others while he was there.
"It started with one wish and grew into what we did [this year]. ... It gives people a chance to see the positive side of corrections," he said.