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Holiday basketball tournament continues to benefit 30-year-old Willmar school foundation

WILLMAR — For more than 30 years, the boys basketball holiday tournament has raised money to help make sure needy kids can participate in sports.

The tournament was started by some Willmar businessmen who wanted to find a way to help pay activity fees for kids whose families couldn’t afford it.

As the tournament and its proceeds grew, the businessmen needed to find a more permanent way of accounting for the revenues and expenditures associated with the work they were doing.

So, 30 years ago, the Willmar Public Schools Foundation came into being.

Bill Taunton, a longtime Willmar businessman, said his efforts to help kids started when schools started charging participation fees in the 1970s. “I felt like there would be kids who couldn’t afford to participate,” he said.

Taunton said he called athletic directors and coaches and told them to let him know if they had students who could not afford the activity fees.

Then, he contacted the kids’ parents and offered to give the kids part-time jobs at his Red Owl grocery store to raise money for the fee.

As the effort grew, Taunton said, he talked to friend and businessman Corky Johnson, who owned the Plywood Minnesota store in Willmar.

“We were looking for an idea to raise money,” he said. They came up with the holiday tournament and called it the RedWood Classic, after their business’ names.

A blizzard hit during the first tournament, so they had teams in town but hardly anyone could get to the games, so it lost money. But the next year and in the years since, the tournament has drawn well. It draws particularly well in the years when the tournament brings in rival teams from the area.

At first, Taunton kept the money in an account on which he paid the taxes each year. “Then we got up to where we had quite a bit of money,” he said, and he approached Willmar lawyer Henry Schmidt to draw up the papers to form a foundation.

“Since then we have funded many, many things,” Taunton said. “It’s been a pleasure to serve. … It took the effort and help of a lot of people to get it going.”

Schmidt was one of the original members of the foundation board of directors along with Taunton and Johnson. Two original board members, Jeff Olson and Richard Falk, retired from the board recently. Taunton and Duane Hanson are original members who continue to serve.

In recent years, the tournament has raised more than $5,000 a year for the foundation.

In addition to paying activity fees for hundreds of students over 30 years, the foundation has helped pay for field trips and provided classroom equipment where needed. Large band instruments have been purchased and donated to the school district. The foundation has also helped raise funds for band uniforms and choir robes.

In the past five years alone, the foundation has donated $180,000 to the school district. Some of the major donations were $18,000 to provide Apple iPad tablet computers for Willmar Middle School, $5,000 for playground equipment and $7,250 for books. The foundation has also funded student activity fees for hundreds of students.

Willmar Schools activities director Ryan Blahosky said the companion girls basketball tournament, the Bremer and the West Central Tribune WildCard, raises money for the W Club, which supports the high school’s strength and conditioning programs.

Blahosky said the schools see a direct benefit from both of the tournaments.

He said he doesn’t know how many students the foundation has helped in all, but he knows it’s substantial.

“If they help one kid be able to participate, it’s worth it,” he said. “Lifelong lessons are learned from being part of a program.” Anonymous donors also help with activity fees, he said.

Current activity fees at Willmar Senior High are $300 for the first sport, $200 for a second sport and $100 for a third sport, with a $700 annual cap per family.

The first games in the tournament begin at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Willmar Senior High gym.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340