YORK, Maine – As a summer kid growing up at York Beach, local builder Walter Woods used to love nighttime bonfires on the sand. With that memory in mind, Woods has long held an end-of-summer traditional bonfire on Long Sands Beach, raising funds in recent years for the York Food Pantry.
He does it, he said, because it is a fun family time, and because he feels strongly that “no kid in York should go without food.” But he was totally taken by surprise when he learned that, because of his work, he has been named the Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce 2015 Citizen of the Year.
“I was flabbergasted. I got the chills, to tell you the truth,” he said. “To me, if you’re going to be nominated for anything, this is at the top of the list. It’s quite an honor.”
Woods started the Labor Day weekend bonfire the summer after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as a fundraiser for the New York City Firefighters Fund. The formula started then has pretty much continued to today: a family-style cookout with food donated by local businesses along with live music.
“We had such a wonderful response, we wanted to see if we could continue doing it every year after that,” he said.
Over the years, the funds raised have totaled more than $90,000 and have gone to local nonprofits. But for the past five years and in future years, the money supports the York Food Pantry.
“We learned that for every $1 we raised, it was equivalent to $5 in food (from the Good Shepherd Food Bank), and we believe it does the most for the community.”
This past Labor Day bonfire raised $7,140 for the pantry, similar to the amount raised the year before.
Maureen Monsen, food pantry director, said she doesn’t know what she would do without the annual bonfire contribution.
“This is our No. 1 fundraiser. This is huge,” she said. “I can’t even stress how important it is. I worry that if we didn’t have this, where else would we be able to come up with $7,000.”
The pantry is under the auspices of the York Community Services Association. Director Michelle Surdoval said when she and Monsen nominated Woods as Citizen of the Year, it was very purposeful.
“We could have nominated a lot of different people in the community because so many do so many good things for us,” Surdoval said. “But we chose him because his spirit and his family’s spirit inspires us.”
That family, or “board of directors” as Woods calls them, is as important as he is to the bonfire’s success, and equally deserve the award. This includes his wife, Jennifer, children Lyndsay and Haley, mom and dad Richard and Sally Woods and mother-in-law Jean Haley.
“But it’s more than that. My brother Gary (a captain in the York Beach Fire Department) gets the fire truck down here, the police are here, local businesses donate to a raffle, Anthony’s donates soda and water, the Union Bluff donates hamburgers,” she said. “It’s like clockwork now. They call me and say, ‘when are you going to come get this.’”
Woods’ business, Graystone Builders, donates to many sports groups in town and many local nonprofits during the year, but he said everyone has really come to appreciate the bonfire.
“We love living here,” he said.
As Citizen of the Year, Woods will lead the annual Festival of Lights Parade, scheduled for Dec. 5.
As seen on seacoastonline.com