Juneau Community Foundation’s Philanthropist of the Year has had a whale of an impact on the capital city.
Laraine Derr was recognized by JCF for her support of projects including the Southeast Alaska Food Bank, costume design for high school theater, Alaska Mental Health, cooking for auctions, Juneau Women’s network and the water-spraying statue at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park.
“Getting that whale built is my favorite,” Derr said in a phone interview with the Empire. “All you have to do is go look at it.”
It took more than a decade for the roughly $10 million project to come together, and Derr, who was head of fundraising for the project, said it’s exciting to see selfies in front of the whale statue become an almost universal part of visiting Juneau.
“You see on Facebook, people say ‘Wow, you got close to the whale.’ Then, you have to admit it’s a statue,” she said.
Derr was recognized as Philanthropist of the Year at a dinner last week, and Elgee Rehfeld LLC was was recognized with the Philanthropic Business Award during the same event. Derr said she found out about the distinction in early August.
“I immediately burst into tears,” she said. “I was pretty overwhelmed. I am not one that pursues the limelight. I’ve been involved in a lot of fundraising efforts just because I think it’s the right thing to do. To be recognized for it is pretty neat.”
Amy Skilbred, executive director for Juneau Community Foundation, said Derr was selected for the award because of her long and varied philanthropic history that ranges from sewing costumes for high school plays to leading fundraising efforts for large projects.
“She just exemplifies the spirit of philanthropy,” Skilbred said.
Philanthropist of the Year does not come with a monetary award, and Skilbred said typically recipients name a charitable organization they’d like to see supported. In Derr’s case, she challenged attendees of the dinner to match $50,000 that her friends raised for the JCF prior to the event.
Derr has lived in Juneau since 1980. During that time, she’s been part of a push to build more than the whale statue.
She said the construction of Southeast Alaska Food Bank’s current location is another one of her favorite philanthropic accomplishments.
“I was a charter member of the food bank,” Derr said. “We were constantly seeking a home.”
She said at different points it was housed in several locations, including a dilapidated building and a garage. In 2001, its current building was erected on Crazy Horse Drive off Industrial Drive, according to the food bank. An addition to the building was opened in 2016.
“Those are the kind of projects that I really appreciate the people of Juneau for,” Derr said. “If you’ve got a good project, and you ask them to open up their pocketbooks, they do.”
Not all of Derr’s big efforts are in the past.
She said she is currently part of the push to raise money for moving the Glory Hall from the downtown homeless shelter and soup kitchen’s Franklin Street location to the Mendenhall Valley.
Derr said $378,000 had been raised as of last Wednesday for the project, which had a fundraising goal of $300,000.
“We said, ‘Why not make it $400,000,” Derr said. “We’re still trying to raise that last $22,000.”
She said her support for the project is because she is a believer a facility further away from downtown will help Glory Hall patrons.
“People who are struggling, step out of the door and are faced with the demons,” Derr said. “I just think that’s not right.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.