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On track to help

It's quickly become a holiday tradition for many in south Washington County: Gather the family, bundle up and head to the annual Cottage Grove stop for the Canadian Pacific Holiday Train.

More gratifying to Michelle Rageth, Executive Director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, is another tradition that's come along with it: giving.

The Holiday Train's thousands of Christmas lights and music make for Christmastime family fun.

When it stops Saturday, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on West Point Douglas Road near the Youth Service Bureau building, it will mark its seventh year in Cottage Grove, where crowds have grown to more than 7,000 attendees last year.

And as the crowds have grown, so have the donations. The Holiday Train and accompanying fundraising make for a huge portion of Friends in Need's budget -- almost 30 percent last year, Rageth said.

"Anything that allows us to keep up with demand is very important to us," Rageth said. "The Holiday Train is such a huge fundraiser and we're so grateful to the community for supporting it."

Cottage Grove has become the top stop along the Holiday Train's route through the northern United States and southern Canada in attendance, food and monetary donations.

Last year, the Holiday Train's stop in Cottage Grove helped raise $51,000 for Friends in Need. This year, Holiday Train Committee chair Mary Slusser said, the fundraising goal is a more modest $40,000 because of the economic downturn.

But already, Slusser said, the committee had raised $31,000 as of last week.

That's money critical to the food bank as more south Washington County residents struggle with unemployment and look to it for help.

The numbers are staggering: by the end of December, more than 20,000 people will have visited Friends in Need Food Shelf, the St. Paul Park food bank's director says. More than one million pounds of food will have been given out.

When Rageth began working with Friends in Need 11 years ago, the food shelf helped around 3,000 residents.

"Now," she said, "we're seeing so many middle class people who used to donate to us coming for help."

Slusser, who helped persuade Canadian Pacific to stop the train in Cottage Grove for the first time in 2003, said she is impressed with how quickly the event has grown.

"We're well aware the Holiday Train is their No. 1 fundraiser," Slusser said. "How many more people are we able to help by having this event? It's incredible."