Peter Bennett isn't the typical vision of Santa Claus -- no red suit, no white beard, no sleigh. But on Thursday, Bennett was the next best thing for volunteers at El Dorado Park in northeast Fresno.
The 89-year-old cattle rancher from Clovis -- complete with a white hat and a rustic vocabulary -- donated $35,000 to three organizations striving to improve the impoverished neighborhood near Wesley United Methodist Church, just west of Fresno State:
-- $25,000 to the Boys & Girls Club at El Dorado Park.
-- $10,000 to the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
-- $5,000 to the El Dorado Park Community Development Corp.
The donations at El Dorado Park were part of a string of more than $330,000 distributed this week by the Fresno Regional Foundation to about 40 nonprofit charities in Fresno and Madera counties.
The foundation serves as a clearinghouse for large- and small-scale donors who want to contribute to community causes. Lori Clanton, director of administration for the foundation, said about half of the donors direct their contributions to specific causes; the other half are undecided, enabling the foundation to award funds through competitive grants.
While many charities have experienced declines in contributions in the wake of the recession, "there are a number of businesses that are doing well," foundation CEO Dan DeSantis said. "We have some staggering poverty in this region, but we also have substantial wealth."
"There's an enormous amount of giving at the end of this year to avoid taxes next year," DeSantis said. Donors who give to the foundation can take the writeoff from their 2012 taxes, while the money can be distributed to recipient charities later.
Clanton said the foundation's budget was about $6 million this year.
For the charities receiving checks Thursday, it didn't matter whether donors gave for altruism or for tax breaks. They're just grateful for the help.
Donations like the one from Bennett "are the difference between having a Boys & Girls Club here and not having one," said Kenneth Quenzer, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Fresno County. "We simply cannot afford to do this without the funding."
Quenzer said the club serves between 30 and 60 children each day.
Fresno State professor Henry Delcore, who is board president of the El Dorado Park Community Development Corp., added that donations give hope to the surrounding neighborhood.
"When people see donors from outside the community giving, it lets them know that people care," Delcore said.
Bennett, who's retired in body but not in spirit from the cattle business in Raymond and Arizona, waved off praise for his generosity.
"It's just money and that's the cheapest damn thing in the world you can give somebody," he said.
"It's the people who are using their time and their intelligence to do something with that money," he added. "People give time, and sometimes they're late to dinner with their family because they're doing that -- that's meaningful to me."
Matilda Maddox presented another Thursday donation, a $5,000 check from her family's fund in the foundation to Guide Dogs for the Blind. She and her late husband, Riverdale dairyman Douglas Maddox, thought highly of the agency, which pairs up specially trained dogs with blind clients.
Jessica McAlexander, on hand with her guide dog, a black Labrador retriever named Anton, explained that donations not only pay for volunteers to train the puppies, but also cover expenses for clients who train for two to four weeks with their new guide dogs at one of two centers in the U.S.
Jim Russell, a representative for Guide Dogs for the Blind, said the organization has 20 puppies in training by volunteers in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Across town, Paul Read earmarked his $15,000 donation for the Fresno Rescue Mission, where he has volunteered for 45 years.
"They help people in need, and that's the scriptural thing to do," he said.
Read said he began going to the mission in 1967 along with other men from the People's Church.
"It was just so impressive to me to see someone ministering to people in the street," he said.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, email@example.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.