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Tough times force nonprofit group to map a new flight path

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a tough time to be executive director of a nonprofit or other charitable endeavor because of COVID-19 and a faltering economy, but you’d never know it talking with the ever-ebullient Ann Edenfield Sweet.

Even when she’s explaining how she’s been forced to cancel essential fundraisers, festivities and the regular functions of Wings for Life International with prisoners and their families, her voice rings like the bells at Christmas.

But it’s hardly feeling like the season of giving.

“This is our 25th anniversary and we’ve had to cancel our banquet because of COVID-19 restrictions,” she said. “And, of course, our major fundraiser, Celebration of Champions, isn’t happening this year.”

Many nonprofits are in the same dire position, unable to throw the usual wine and cheese, and wallets gatherings to draw in ever-dwindling dollars and frazzled, socially distanced do-gooders.

Ann Edenfield Sweet, holding a treasure box, and members of the Wings for Life International team pose at one of the 10 sites in the nonprofit’s upcoming Treasured Sites Hunt.

So it was time for thinking outside the donation box.

And that’s how Edenfield Sweet and some of her board came up with the idea of finding money by asking people to find special locations around town.

Think Fenn Treasure meets Chamber of Commerce.

The Wings Thru Albuquerque Treasured Site Hunt, which begins Saturday and runs through Aug. 9, invites families, friends and businesses to form teams and hunt down – following COVID-19 safety measures – at least five of 10 sites across Albuquerque using clues provided online.

A photo of the team must be taken at the site once located. Props and costumes reflective of each site are encouraged. Prizes include televisions, gift baskets, a set of Callaway golf clubs, gift certificates, trophies and more, and will be given to the first team to complete the hunt, best photo from each site and a grand prize winner.

Cost is $25 per team, but scholarships and sliding scales are available for those in need.

“Money should not be a reason not to participate,” Edenfield Sweet said. “This is a fundraiser, but it’s also meant to be fun.”

Edenfield Sweet and her crew sure had fun – first in coming up with the 10 sites, then crafting short rhymes as clues to finding the sites, then heading out to the sites last weekend.

“We had a ball,” she said.

The Wings for Life International team demonstrates how contestants in the Treasured Sites Hunt are encouraged to photograph themselves at the sites with props and costumes indicative of the site.

She envisions the Treasured Site Hunt as a fun, affordable way for people to safely get together for a good cause and a good time while experiencing some of the cool and iconic locations around the city, all in a day or over three weeks.

“They’re places that everybody should see at least once, yet it’s surprising how many people haven’t visited,” she said. “Albuquerque is really a neat town if you go out to see it.”

Wings is a pretty neat cause, too.

I’ve written about Wings and Edenfield Sweet almost since she founded the nonprofit in 1995 as a way to help others who, like her, had their worlds turned upside down by the dubious actions of a loved one.

The former homecoming queen, cheerleader, student council president, sorority girl, Miss Michigan contestant and flight attendant watched her perfect life collapse when her first husband, an airline pilot, was hauled off to prison on federal drug charges in 1986.

Confusion, cruelty, ostracism and financial ruin became her life until she found her footing and a way out. Wings For Life International helps prison inmates and their families find their footing through ministry, weekly dinners for families, holiday parties, tutoring sessions for children, inmate education, and a variety of programs and activities that help connect inmates and their families to each other and the new lives that await them.

Because of COVID-19, much of what Wings does has been grounded. But it still airs a TV show twice a week on KAZQ Channel 32 and streamed online, and plans are in the works for Zoom get-togethers and a COVID-19-safe way to distribute school supplies in August.

She also said she and the Wings team are ready to swoop back into the prisons to provide inmates with classes on finding jobs and how to be money-wise once they are allowed to do so.

“We have a calming effect on the prison system,” she said. “When we get back in, it will be a welcome relief.”

The Treasured Site Hunt will help Wings do that. And maybe hunting for these sites will bring some relief from the monotony of a pandemic that is anything but treasured.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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