CHILLICOTHE — As assistant chief of Ambulance Rescue 33, Nick Hedden hasn't answered an ambulance call in five years. As event coordinator for the same outfit, his time away from the intensity and bustle of doughnut production during the service's annual Donut Days weekend is measured in minutes.
"If you get too tired, there's a cot downstairs where you can catch a little nap," Hedden said Friday morning. "Other than that, you are up here. Working."
Friday morning marked the beginning of sales of homemade doughnuts in the 52nd annual Donut Days fundraiser in Chillicothe. Thursday evening marked the beginning of the production of more than 11,000 dozen doughnuts by dozens of volunteers. They won't stop until Sunday.
"Our volunteers are incredible," Hedden said. "None of this gets accomplished without their hard work."
"People show up every year," said Gary Sharp, a stalwart Rescue 33 advocate and an alderman on the Chillicothe City Council. "They say, 'Put me to work. What do you need me to do?'"
Though not as old, Donut Days is as much a part of Chillicothe as the river that defines its eastern boundary. The fundraiser started a few years after the founding of Rescue 33 in 1966 when a group of local residents decided waiting for an ambulance to transport Chillicothe patients to Peoria hospitals could result in unnecessary death. They raised money and bought a red station wagon, the volunteer service's first emergency transporter. The service grew to include two ambulances, dozens of volunteer emergency medical technicians and paramedics and a new garage and headquarters built in the 1980s. For 47 years, Rescue 33 responded to emergency calls and never billed a patient.
Five years ago, Rescue 33 lost its license for repeated failure to meet the minimum standards set forth by the county regulating agency. Then it lost its contract with the city to Advanced Medical Transport out of Peoria. There were attempts to get its license and its place in the community reinstated, but it has remained an inactive service since then.
The contract between the city and AMT expires this year. Rescue 33 has hopes that it can affiliate with the local fire department and start answering calls again.
"That's about all I can say about it," Sharp said Friday.
Relieved of its need to raise money to pay for an active ambulance service, Rescue 33, a registered 501(c) 3 charity, turned its attention to reinvigorated efforts to raise money for local groups. Canceling Donut Days and the annual summer fundraiser, Claude-Elen Days, was never discussed.
"What are you going to tell the kids, we're canceling doughnuts and the carnival? We couldn't do it," Hedden said. "We wouldn't do it. Rescue 33 is too much a part of this community."
The record year for doughnut sales was 2005, when Rescue 33 raised $50,807, an amount bolstered by a $10,000 donation from one individual. A more typical year is around $40,000.
Beneficiaries include the Illinois Valley Central High School band, IVC Campus Life, Drew's Plots, Cuddles for Kids, Veterans Helping Veterans and many more.
The community pitches in, and in myriad ways. There are two weekend "lock-ins" for high school students who spend the nights making doughnuts. Local sports teams help with setup and more. Castaways restaurant and bar donates food for the volunteers. Churches buy doughnuts in bulk and serve them to their Sunday morning parishioners. Gas stations and other stores sell them all weekend long. A local business bought 37 dozen and wrote a check for twice the cost as a donation. If travelers can't find a doughnut in Chillicothe this weekend, they are not looking very hard.
"I've worked the (money) table before and I always ask people where they are from," Sharp said. "They come from all over. Green Bay, Princeville."
"We've mailed doughnuts to former Chillicothe residents around the United States," Hedden said. "Hawaii, Colorado."
The front room was a blur of activity Friday morning. Hedden briefly escaped the action for an interview with a newspaper reporter. He was working on little sleep.
"We'll be fine," he said. "We're used to it."
A young girl volunteer entered the backroom wearing an apron, a smile and a dusting of powdered sugar.
"It just got really busy out there," she told Hedden. "I think we need you to run the machine."
"I'll be there in a minute," Hedden said.
There were 48 hours to go in Donut Days weekend.
"People can just stop by (1217 Santa Fe Ave., Chillicothe), Hedden said. "If there's a light on, we'll sell 'em doughnuts."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at email@example.com. Follow firstname.lastname@example.org.