Today, Farmington Hills residents Mari and John Senko will mark the 20th anniversary of an event they created to help the Salvation Army raise money during the holiday season.
According to Mari Senko, the event has evolved over the years. As a volunteer coordinator for Mensa, an international society for intellectual exchange, she started organizing groups of bell ringers to stand outside with the Salvation Army's holiday kettle drive. That turned into a Soup Kitchen Benefit, held in the Senkos' home.
"Obviously 20 years ago, we were much younger, and so were all of our friends, and we had a lot more energy," Senko said. "What I used to do then is coordinate people to cover a couple shifts at, like, ten different Salvation Army locations for bell ringing."
After ringing bells, volunteers would head over to the Senko house for a party.
"Eventually what happened was, it got harder and harder to talk my friends into standing out in the cold and do this," Senko said. "And as we got older, we actually had more money than time to do it. So I decided to change it to a benefit."
Senko cooks her famous vegetable beef soup and serves bread, cheeses, beer and wine -- the same menu every year. They have been doing the soup kitchen-themed benefit for the past ten years.
The benefit is always held the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
"That's a good weekend when everybody is home," Senko said. "They've already done some family stuff, and they are ready for a Christmas party. We have our house decorated for Christmas, and it's how we kind of kick off the season here."
A Salvation Army red kettle stands in the Senko home, and they ask that attendees donate an amount they would spend on a night out for dinner and drinks.
"What the Farmington Hills Salvation Army has told me is that we bring in more than they bring in at a good site for a whole day," Senko said.
The money goes to help the Farmington Hills Corps Salvation Army, which covers a very large area. The unit helps people in Southfield, Novi, Farmington, Farmington Hills, South Lyon, Wixom and New Hudson.
"That money is actually what we count on in addition to the red kettles you see going at the stores during the holidays, donations and federal funds," said Karen Guerreso, Salvation Army Farmington Hills Corp Office Manager. "The money that she mainly brings in goes into our general fund and keeps us going the entire year. We really rely on it."
Guerreso has worked at the Salvation Army for 21 years and has known the Senkos since they began organizing their benefit.
Some people attend every year, Senko said, and some of the couples' co-workers attend every once in a while.
Betsy Y. Mark of Pittsfield Township has known Senko ever since she joined Mensa and was among the first bell ringers 20 years ago.
"Mari had put it out that she was doing this, and my husband and I decided this was something we could do, because we were friends with Mari and her husband," Mark said. "Sometimes it was nice and balmy. But we rang bells in almost 20 below zero weather once."
Mark remembers standing outside a Kroger in Farmington Hills, ringing bells in weather so cold that she wore a jacket over her winter coat and wrapped herself in a blanket besides.
"It was just so blasted cold, it wasn't even funny," Mark said. "We had rung bells in rain, we had rung bells in snow and we were getting old. So we went to Mari's Soup Party and we said, can we write a check and not ring bells? And that's what ended up happening. We now write checks."
Mark's husband, Ed, passed away four years ago, but she said they both thought of the benefit as a gift Senko gave them, a gift that allowed them to help others.
Mark missed the event last year, and even then, she still wrote a check. She plans on attending today.
"It's one of those things where you just feel good about what you do," Mark said. "The people who are there are from all walks of life. It was an appropriate cause that we could support. In fact, we always kept change in our pockets so we could put something in their kettle. You have no idea how people will avoid looking at you while you're ringing bells."