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Barreling down an Italian country road in a taxi, zipping past everything from grassy farms to modest homes and deteriorating long-ago ruins, I’m on the way from the bustling community of Parma to the vibrant, yet decidedly quieter, town of Busseto. My destination is someone’s house; from what I’ve heard it’s a sprawling property that I was informed I just had to check out.

Unfortunately, the ornate Villa’s owner won’t be there to greet me. He died over 100 years ago.

Parma perhaps doesn’t even crack the top 10 of places in Italy where would-be visitors dream of traversing to. After all, there’s the eternal city of Rome, the urban center of Milan and pizza-centric Naples, not to mention the picturesque Amalfi coast or idyllic Capri, Como’s glistening waters, as well as Puglia, Bologna, Florence, Venice, Sicily or any number of other communities where tour buses roll, couples go on their honeymoons and influencers flock to post Instagram-selfies with captions that say “La Dolce Vida” (and yes, I saw someone do this). If anything, the only thing the name Parma invokes in most people’s minds is cheese.

To put it simply, Parma is the Wisconsin of Italian life, at least in the sense that cheese culture reigns supreme here. As one may have guessed, Parma is the proud home of Parmesan Reggiano. (The Reggiano portion of that moniker comes from the name of this region.)

As a result, Parma and its surrounding communities serve as a minefield for the lactose-intolerant as the area is positively plastered with formaggio, including the shops that hawk cheese-wheels the size of Goodyear tires. At trattorias across this land, the cheese is rarely, if-ever, grated, but rather served via large chunks piled high on a plate, to be eaten by hand with the area’s other specialties. Those include Parma ham or torta fritta, which are essentially salty, light puffs of fried dough. Yes, piles of cheese, as well as fatty and fried food. American catnip is on the menu here in Parma.

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News | Readers donate record amount to Bay Area News Groups Share the Spirit campaign

Worries about high food prices and rising inflation didn’t stop generous readers from contributing a record amount to this news organization’s annual Share the Spirit campaign, benefiting nonprofits in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

“This remarkable result is a testament to the power of local journalism partnered with the generosity of our community members,” Bay Area News Group Publisher Sharon Ryan said.

As of Thursday, $600,702 in donations had been raised, according to Dee Dee Robillard, the East Bay Times’ community projects director who administers the program. That is $25,000 more than the previous year, she said.

“We are just so pleased that our readers make it possible to make these grants to deserving causes every year, and we really are so grateful to everyone who helped,” Robillard said.

Anticipating that some readers might not have extra money to share this year, given rising costs and other economic challenges, the community projects director said that she talked with potential donors and asked if they could give a little more this time out. They rose to the occasion, she said.

“It reflects something that is happening across the country in terms of giving, in that fewer people are giving but people who are giving, are giving more,” she said.

Now in its 28th year, Share the Spirit is supported by individual, foundation and business contributions.

Ken Rickner holds his bible while speaking to a group of 10 homeless persons during a gathering of the ShowerHouse Ministries at Fulton Shipyard Road in Antioch, Calif., on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. ShowerHouse Ministries provides homeless people with a place to shower, a hot meal, clothing and other essential supplies. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

During each holiday season, the East Bay Times tells the stories of people whose lives were made better by nonprofits that receive Share the Spirit funds. Readers respond to those stories by sending in additional donations, and those funds are distributed to featured programs at the close of the annual campaign.

In all, this year 48,182 people were helped by the fundraising program grants, Robillard said.

The Bay Area News Group’s similar South Bay program, Wish Book, also had a banner year in 2022. It raised $900,292, which will help an estimated 56,611 people.

Since its inception, the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation has supported the Share the Spirit and Wish Book programs each year with matching donations of up to $25,000. Bay Area News Group employees donated $12,000, an amount the foundation matched. The media group provided all the staff, marketing, accounting and processing fees, Robillard said.

This year also marked the first time that Share the Spirit invited readers to specify which nonprofits they wanted to support, she said.

Some of the stories that especially moved readers this year, donation patterns revealed, featured the nonprofits Beyond Emancipation, Battle Tested Kids, Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano counties and ShowerHouse Ministries.

Julia Lakes, Oakland’s Beyond Emancipation director of development, said the story about a young woman who was about to become homeless after aging out of the foster care system touched readers’ hearts. The nonprofit helped the young woman find stable housing, and counselors supported and encouraged her to enter and complete college — and even pursue a higher degree.

With the help of Beyond Emancipation, Celena Johnson is pursuing a degree in public health at Cal State East Bay in Hayward. Johnson, who was born premature to a mother who struggled with alcoholism and was not expected to survive, will graduate this winter and hopes to become a neonatal nurse. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) 

“Everyone knows it’s hard to be a teen and to grow up,” she said. “And we all know what a difference it can make having someone in your corner who’s rooting for you and helping you through that hard transition.”

It also inspired many people to donate beyond their contributions to Share the Spirit, Lakes said.

“Just being in the paper brings in a lot of donations directly to us, too,” she said. “It is such an important program, and we are so grateful to be part of it.”

Lindsay Drakeley, leadership gifts manager for the food bank, also said many people can relate to her nonprofit’s cause. Every dollar donated can purchase two meals, she said.

“Everyone understands and is feeling the effects of inflation this year, and they see how the increased costs at the grocery store are straining their budgets,” she said. “I think that really resonated with readers this year, knowing how expensive food is.”

Drakeley said the Share the Spirit contributions support the purchase, transport, storage and distribution of food, and additional funding from the community helps the organization weather price hikes and other challenges.

“We’re so grateful for everyone who gave their time and their funds to support us, but hunger is a year-round thing and we’re entering one of the slowest times in terms of donations and volunteer interest,” Drakeley added. “So, we could use any continued support people can offer.”


Donate at sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate.


Read Share the Spirit stories, view photos and video at sharethespiriteastbay.org.

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