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  Where Pigs Fly

by Dave Yanko

In 1976, Saskatchewan's Kinsmen club staged the first Telemiracle, a province-wide, 20-hour telethon aimed at raising money for people in need of special medical care, equipment, procedures or services. Telemiracle raised $1.2 million.

Organizers were staggered by the public response, the equivalent of more than a dollar donated by every man, woman and child in the province. As far as anyone could determine, it was the highest-per-capita total recorded at any telethon, anywhere. As of 2011, Telemiracle had raised more than $81 million.

The Kinsmen and Kinettes attribute Telemiracle's success to Saskatchewan's community spirit. But even in the generous province of Saskatchewan, some communities are more spirited than others.

Englefeld's pig in the sky.
Englefeld's pig in the sky.

Englefeld is a tiny burgh located an hour and a half east of Saskatoon on No. 5 Highway. It's distinguishable from other small communities in the vicinity by the large, artificial pig perched atop a roadside building.

The pig serves notice Englefeld is home to Hogfest, by all accounts one of the most entertaining annual celebrations in the province. But its skyward placement lays bare the lie that certain things can be accomplished only when pigs can fly.

Englefeld, population 250, last year raised $21,000 for Telemiracle. And while residents are quick to point out contributions came in from the surrounding area as well, Englefeld is easily the most generous community in Saskatchewan.

What accounts for this unparalleled charity?

"There's lots of money here," concedes former mayor Ed Schulte.

Three industries in the village together employ up to 150 people, many of whom also operate farms on land so favorably blessed it's considered 'can't miss' in the crop business.

So, true enough, you have to have money before you can give it away.

But there's more to Englefeld than money. After all, if Regina or Saskatoon contributed at the same rate as Englefeld, Telemiracle would be pushing the $20-million mark.

Englefeld, it turns out, is a place where community spirit is a tangible resource. Englefeld's success in raising money for Telemiracle is just one example of how it's used.

Since 1988, Englefeld has staged its own 'mini-Telemiracle' coinciding with the provincial one held each March. Festivities begin at 1 p.m. Saturday in the bar of the Englefeld Hotel, the focal-point of fundraising activities. The main event is a talent show where local, regional and now a few national entertainers perform on stage while members of the audience make 'pledges' on their favorite performers.

"There's a trophy for the highest pledge-earner - the one who brings in the most money for Telemiracle," explains Lil McGonigal, who operates the hotel with her husband Ken. "And there's also first-, second- and third-place trophies for entertaining - it goes by crowd applause. And all the money raised goes to Telemiracle."

Lil McGonigal runs the hotel and bar with her husband Ken.
Lil McGonigal runs the hotel and bar with her husband Ken.

The Englefeld mini-Telemiracle wraps up around 3 a.m. Sunday. But it really begins well before the first entertainer takes to the stage.

A variety of small fundraisers occur throughout the year. But November is the annual Grey Cup party, where six bucks buys supper and a $1 bet on the game board in the bar - football fans may increase their stakes if they wish. The pot is split between the pool winner and Telemiracle.

Next comes the 'poker rally', a January event where teams of snowmobile enthusiasts strive for a winning poker hand by drawing cards at a series of "ski-doo shack" checkpoints scattered around the countryside.

"At the end, they take the kids home and come back to the bar," says McGonigal. "We supply a big supper. . . and we donate all the proceeds (from the rally) to Telemiracle. It works out great."

Monies raised from Englefeld's special events are supplemented by a wide variety of fundraising drives by church, school and special interest groups throughout the area.

Those who can't afford cash donations are invited to submit items for the auction that's part of the entertainment program during Saturday's mini-Telemiracle. Contributors receive charitable-donation receipts equal to the sale price of their articles, and all auction proceeds go to Telemiracle.

"It's amazing what happens in that bar," says Dale Ewen, a service rep over at the Pool elevator. "People just get geared up for this - they get geared up to give money away. It's not a spur-of-the moment thing. They go in there ready to spend money."

Joanne Plag, who works part-time at the grocery store, says that's precisely what happens.

"I say to (her partner) Hughie, before we go to the bar, I say, 'Okay, now make sure you've got a hundred dollars in cash, in small bills. We don't want to spend it all at once - we want to have fun'."

Plag is president of Engelfeld's recreation board, where her primary duty is to organize the work of more than a dozen committees charged with planning and staging the Hogfest celebration that occurs each summer. Begun in 1971, Hogfest has evolved into a homecoming weekend of sports tournaments and celebration capped off by a massive feast featuring up to 16, spit-roasted pigs.

Hogfest is Englefeld's showcase - as many as 1,600 people attend the dinner. It's also become an important fundraiser. Proceeds go towards paying the utility bills at the village skating arena, helping out the local library or the seniors group, and operating the bowling alley.

Joanne Plag knows what it's like to be a newcomer to Englefeld.
Joanne Plag knows what it's like to be a newcomer to Englefeld.

Plag, in her second year at the helm, might appear to have her hands full. In fact, she says her job is easy.

"They've got lists from 25 years ago. We know exactly how much of what is needed, and everything," says Plag.

"I don't have to phone the people in the different groups to say: 'Okay, you're doing this, and you're doing that.' They just know it. It's their turn."

Plag was 14 when she moved with her family from 'downtown Vancouver' to her mother's hometown of Englefeld. She's seen first hand how newcomers are warmly welcomed into the community, and then recruited to become an active part of it.

"When a new family comes to town, they're involved. They're on our list," says Plag. "They're being told: 'Okay, this is what you have to do'."

Fresh faces are not uncommon in the rural Saskatchewan village. They're drawn to the community by jobs at the manufacturing plants that produce farm and industrial machinery, windmills, and moulded plastic products.

This rejuvenation was jeopardized a year ago (at time of writing) when provincial officials closed Englefeld's elementary school in spite of strong objections the closure would remove an important drawing card for new families. Rather than accept the verdict as a fait accompli, however, Englefeld came up with a clever plan employing a clause in the Canadian constitution to re-open the Catholic school as public school facility.

"It was a loophole - 95 per cent of this community's Catholic," says former mayor Schulte.

Englefeld needed a $200,000 promissory note to back a bank loan required to re-open the school. They raised the promised cash in two days.

"That was the monetary end," says Schulte. "Once we got the okay to have a school, we had 80 to 100 people, every evening, working in the school. Painting, scrubbing, washing - you name it; they did it. They cleaned it all up and we painted that whole school in one week. And that was only after-supper work."

The school re-opened in September, 1998, after being closed for one year.

"It's a close community," says Schulte's wife Aline. "We stick together."

Schulte says Englefeld's knack for harnessing community spirit dates back to 1967, Canada's centennial year. That's when residents surprised themselves by achieving an ambitious plan to raise enough money to construct a new skating arena. Schulte says the success of the project created a surge in community spirit that's grown stronger year by year.

"There wasn't much around here then, and money was harder to come by," he says.

"It was the beginning. We built on that."

Several years after the rink was constructed, a village family lost its home to fire just before Christmas. Englefeld raised $18,000, and then assembled a replacement home 'in a couple of days', says Schulte.

Ed Schulte
Ed Schulte

"The community got together and they gathered everything that hadn't been burned and they cleaned it," adds Aline Schulte. "Everybody with washing machines washed clothes. . . everybody got involved."

Ten years ago, as other small towns watched their grain elevators close, Englefeld stunned neighbouring communities by successfully lobbying for a new one. Today, with the death knell of the rural elevator ringing loudly throughout the province, Englefeld's facility is being considered for an expanded role as the regional gathering point for malt barley.

"I think this one's going to stay," says Schulte.

Englefeld's community spirit is most visible when the village is dealing with the big issue. But its depth is revealed in the small ones.

"I've been on the committee to get funeral lunches for, well, I'm sure it must be 18 years now," says Aline Schulte. "You just phone for loads of sandwiches or a cake or something. You never get a 'no'."

About a dozen volunteer committees are responsible for arena operations, according to Plag.

"Each committee has a group leader, and if we need people to run the kitchen, for example, she phones them up.

"The hockey players and figure skaters will be going in pretty soon now to give (the arena) its first good cleaning of the year."

Arden Herman, manager of the Pool elevator, is one of the arena volunteers.

"We're having a cabaret at the rink this weekend and I was over their helping them set up," says Herman. "We had about 25 or 30 people there and many weren't even asked."

Englefeld's spirit and organization also draws benefit from strong leadership, past and present.

The late John Schulte, Ed's older brother and the force behind Schulte Industries, in 1967 shut down his plant for several days and sent his staff to work on the rink.

"He lost a mint," says town historian Ed Wacholtz, who adds John initiated many community projects or hopped on board to lend critical support.

Wacholtz points to the time John contributed $300 for beer at one of the first Hogfests.

"That really got Hogfest off the ground," he laughed. "Three hundred bought a lot of beer in those days."

Ed Schulte, meanwhile, has served as mayor, director of education for the school district, Wheat Pool director, president of the local credit union, board member of a community-college pilot project in the region, and more, all while farming for a living.

The McGonigals have provided a real spark since they took over the hotel a few years ago. And Tommy Vidak, a St. Gregor-area farmer and former Englefeld resident who co-founded the mini-Telemiracle, single-handedly raises thousands of dollars for the annual event.

Tom Vidak
Tom Vidak

"I know everybody and I've got a lot of friends," says Vidak, who's earned the nickname 'Telemiracle Tom'. "I just go around the community, door-to-door, and they give $100, $200, $300, $350 - sometimes $600.

"I'm usually on the road for about a month," says Vidak, who receives no compensation for his efforts. "It's such a good cause, you know. It just gets you going."

Cheryl Beck, provincial director of Kinsmen Telemiracle, says Englefeld's success at raising money for Telemiracle is all the more remarkable because there's no local Kinsmen or Kinette club to drive the effort.

"It's just phenomenal," says Beck. "They do it all on their own."

Englefeld would have it no other way.

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