Three years ago a fresh start and a new mental outlook led Soldotna’s Matt Brown to realize what was most important in life — helping others.
After battling alcoholism and getting sober, Brown took on the task of giving to those who need it most by starting up his own charity, Kids Need Christmas.
“I went to rehab for my alcohol problem, got sober and just celebrated three years,” Brown said in a recent interview. “This and the gym, those two things are what keeps me going. I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a great opportunity.”
Brown’s efforts are one of many of the Kenai Peninsula’s successful endeavors during the season of giving. With just two days until Christmas, Brown and other programs, businesses and organizations around the central peninsula are wrapping up fundraising and charity efforts to make sure everyone can enjoy a happy holiday season.
The Toys for Tots program, which has partnered with the Salvation Army Church for the ninth straight year on the peninsula, has raised $1,700 for needy families with a total of 679 toys collected since Nov. 1, thanks to the help of 35 local host businesses, according to Kenai Chamber of Commerce President Johna Beech.
But Brown, a snowmachine drag racer who funds his racing team out of his own pocket, uses his racing sponsorship money to provide toys, clothing and financial help for needy families. Brown said Kids Need Christmas has helped 75 families this fall, and he hopes to reach at least 100 by extending the charity deadline into April.
Brown’s race team, dubbed AK-49 Racing (Brown is also the owner of AK-49 clothing company), competes in the biweekly Freddie’s Roadhouse drag races near Ninilchik, and Brown said he funds operations on his own dime, with all sponsorship money going to help other families. Brown, a lifelong Soldotna resident who works for Marathon Petroleum in Nikiski, has sponsorship deals with around a dozen businesses.
Brown said his girlfriend Kelsey Cronin have taken in struggling families who have either contacted them through their Facebook page or via word of mouth and set up an appointment with each one to hear their story. He said that he even will pay gas money to people to make the drive out to his place.
“We talk, they share their hardships. It’s kind of like a therapy session,” Brown said. “It’s a pretty humbling experience.”
Brown should know. He went through his own struggles with alcohol before finally giving it up completely. That experience, he said, shaped his view of the community and helped him realize the importance of extending a hand to those less fortunate.
“I wanted a way to give back and be able to make it personal,” he said. “There’s no better way than my racing snowmachines in winter to get local businesses to sponsor me, and the money is used for gift cards and toys for families.”
In 2017, Brown’s program was able to help 65 local children and families with toys, clothing or financial help. Kids Need Christmas offers three levels of sponsorship for local businesses, moving from $500 to $2,000 for a yearlong sponsorship package.
Meanwhile, the Toys for Tots program and the Salvation Army Church has once again come through big time for local families.
Craig Fanning, an envoy at the Salvation Army Church in Kenai for 17 years, said the red kettle program, which deploys volunteers to various business locations around town to ring the bells, has come close to topping $60,000 the last two years and has come close again in 2018.
“We get to almost everywhere,” Fanning said. “We’re hoping to do that this year.”
Fanning also said the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree toy drive has collected between 1,000 and 1,100 toys for struggling families. The nationwide program starts with the families in need filling out a form delineating family size and numbers, and after an “angel” is placed on the tree with that info, donors can decide which angel family they would like to help out. The drive had a Christmas tree centered in the Soldotna Fred Meyer this year.
Fanning said drives like Angel Tree have made a world of difference for needy families.
“We have people bringing toys in that didn’t even know we were doing something,” he said. “It’s really a community effort.”
Fanning’s wife Jeannie heads up the Salvation Army Family Services department, and said the general donations that the place receives make sure to account for all children in any given family. That way, it prevents a donor sending one child in a family a gift, but leaving out the other children.
Jeannie Fanning said the Salvation Army doles out two or three toys, two clothing articles and four “stocking stuffer” items, picked by the families, in any one package. She credited the hard work of her current peers, Debbie Paul Cannavan and Jessie Wait.
“Without those people, I’d be dead in the water,” Fanning said. “They are my absolute hands and feet.”
Fanning said the Salvation Army Family Services donated to around 280 families in total this year, and said even families of inmates from the Wildwood Correctional Complex are helped, something the Salvation Army has been doing since 2003.
“We’re trying to keep a connection between the inmate and the child,” she said. “It just helps open a dialogue between them.”
Fanning said the program has seen a significant drop in inmate problems during the fall season, noting that “all the inmates are on good behavior and happy they get to do this program.”