FORT WAYNE – As nearly 18,000 plastic ducks were dropped into the St. Joseph River at Johnny Appleseed Park on Saturday, 3-year-old Toby Prince sat on his father's shoulders near the riverbank.
With the flock of colorful ducks floating quickly in the current, both waited to hear whether their duck, "Cheeseball Man," would be one of the victors of SCAN's 25th annual Weigand Construction Duck Race.
"It's an important thing," said Daniel Prince, Toby's father. "All the money raised is good money, and you have a good chance of winning too."
SCAN, or Stop Child Abuse and Neglect, raised $161,618 in pledges this year, exceeding this year's goal by more than $6,600. One last $5 pink duck was added minutes before the thousands of ducks were hoisted in a tarp by crane almost 20 feet above the river – bringing the count to 17,621 plastic ducks – and dropped into the water.
"I think it's growing because people know that there is nothing like going out on a Saturday morning to do something free and safe for their children," SCAN spokeswoman Jennifer Boen said. "Even if they purchase one ducky, those kids are going to cheer for their ducky and usually name it. It's a lot of fun."
The first 25 ducks to cross the finish line won an array of awards with Nancy Loebert of Fort Wayne winning $5,000 for her first-place duck. Dave Johnson of Fort Wayne and Norma Lickey of Columbia City won $1,000 and $500 for the second- and third-place ducks.
The other awards included gift certificates, movie rental passes, hockey lessons, and participants could win free Pizza Hut pizza for a year, a personal tax preparation and one-year family membership at American Health Fitness Centers.
"It's gained a reputation through the years. Twenty-five years ago, there was just about 4,000 ducks in the water," Boen said. "Twenty-five years later, there are almost 18,000 ducks. The community is well aware of the duck race. I had a few people show up who said, 'I've always wanted to buy a duck, and this year I'm not going to miss it.' "
For every dollar spent to buy a duck, 95 cents goes directly to the organization's programs that officials say are in need of additional funding. Boen said the duck race provides funding for SCAN's Family Restoration court-ordered program, which helps parents regain a healthy relationship with their children if there has been a previous case of abuse or neglect.
The proceeds will also help the organization's preventive Healthy Families program, which assists low-income families who might not have a reliable support system. Boen said that last year, both programs were able have a positive effect in more than 90 percent of the families SCAN worked with.
"The services we provide are just so important. We're the only agency in northeast Indiana that's committed specifically to prevent child abuse and neglect," Boen said. "We really depend on the community. We have some government help for some of the programs, but it is not nearly enough to cover all that we do."
Taya Shoudel, who works in SCAN's Healthy Families program, said she was considered a "duckling" as she raised 75 pledges for the first time as an employee. She says the day of activities that accompany the race gives all families an outlet.
"The biggest thing is helping prevent child abuse and neglect," Shoudel said. "With more positive family activities, there's less stress. It's great to have this as a family thing to do."