Phyllis Ross Sooy was once told by a fundraiser, who just happened to be her daughter, that all events have a life cycle.
“She said, ‘Don’t be upset, Mom, if after 10 years it peters out and dies,’” Sooy said.
Turns out, there was no need to worry.
Twenty years after Sooy and fellow City Mission board member Cindy Pfrimmer concocted the idea of Sweet Sunday, the event is bigger – and better – than ever, and has turned into the mission’s most profitable fundraiser.
“It’s a fun event, and I’m grateful it’s done really well,” Sooy said.
Sweet Sunday is a widespread community affair that features delectable desserts made by local businesses, youth groups and service organizations. Through the years, there has been an array of activities to go along with the tasty treats, such as musical entertainment, caricaturists, clowns, children’s crafts, face-painting, dance performances, eating contests, a sumo wrestling competition and Chinese and silent auctions.
For several years, Sarris Candies in Canonsburg also sold Sweet Sunday candy bars, some of which contained two free airline tickets to Orlando, Fla., courtesy of Royal Travel in Meadow Lands.
In 2004, former professional athletes, including the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Reggie Harrison and Craig Bingham, and Pittsburgh Penguins’ Phil Bourque, signed autographs.
“It is such a nice family event, and it’s something for everybody to do in the winter,” said Helen Colletti, who, along with Isabelle Holzapfel, helped Pfrimmer and Sooy organize the first Sweet Sunday.
Sooy said Sweet Sunday was modeled after the Super Bowl of Chili, which for 10 years was sponsored by the Observer-Reporter at the Washington Mall. Sooy, who previously served as the O-R’s food editor, and the late Byron Smialek, who was news editor at the time, cooked up Super Bowl of Chili in the mid-1980s precisely to combat the doldrums of winter.
“Personally, I’m saddened by the demise of the Super Bowl of Chili,” Sooy said. “It was my idea. I named it. In the early years, it gave me headaches in the planning and bellyaches the couple of times when I had to judge.”
The sweets theme was appropriate for the City Mission event, Sooy said, because “everybody likes desserts” and it’s held around Valentine’s Day.
Dean Gartland, director of the City Mission, believes the time of year and the fundraiser’s beneficiary are reasons behind Sweet Sunday’s successful staying power.
Proceeds from the event are used to provide food and shelter for residents at the mission, which has been filled to capacity. The men’s shelter is housing 58 residents, and Avis Arbor is providing shelter for 27 women and 11 children.
“At Sweet Sunday, everybody has a great time,” Gartland said. “They have a lot of sweets … and at the same time they’re doing a great service to the community.”
Nobody knew what to expect at the first Sweet Sunday. The event had no sponsors, there was no auction and, unlike recent years, there was no interest in a having a panel of celebrity judges to award prizes.
But the event did receive plenty of donations from longtime supporters of the mission, such as Pastries by John, previously located at Washington Mall, the SpringHouse in Eighty Four, O.H.I. Ice Cream Distributors of Washington, Balloons Over Washington and Malone’s Flower Shop in Canonsburg.
The Holiday Inn Meadow Lands even gave the mission a reduced rate for the space, but when manager Satish Jethani heard the testimonials of mission residents and saw the influx of patrons to the main ballroom, he waived the fee.
Colletti said they lucked out with attendance, thanks to a flea market held nearby at The Meadows earlier in the day.
“I remember we were concerned. Would anybody really come?” she said. “When they came out of the flea market, they all came over to us.”
That first event raised about $5,000, Colletti said. Today, according to Gartland, Sweet Sunday raises $100,000.
Colletti was an administrative assistant at the mission before retiring several years ago. She co-chaired the event six times, in addition to serving on various committees.
“People go and are appreciative of the fact the desserts are very cheaply priced,” she said.
Sweet Sunday eventually outgrew the Holiday Inn, and for several years now has been held at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe. Sooy said there were concerns that attendance might suffer by moving it farther away from Washington.
Again, there was no need to worry. The crowds as robust as ever.
“It’s become quite an event that’s come close to outgrowing our space again,” Colletti said.
When: Feb. 9
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m.
Where: Hilton Garden Inn, Southpointe
Tickets: $4 in advance; $5 at the door; $20 maximum for families of four or more; children younger than 3 are free. Tickets are available at the City Mission’s administration building.
For more information: 724-228-9240, ext. 213, or www.citymission.org