Annual Chocolate Celebration brings in more money in 22nd year

May 3—Tucked away in a hallway at One Church, formerly First Nazarene, Penny Ferguson handed out confectionary treats behind a carnival-themed booth Friday. She was dressed as a clown.

Texas sheet cake, doughnuts, gummies, lollipops and cupcakes decorated to look like popcorn and cotton candy caught the eye of passersby. It was Ferguson's first time running a booth at the Samaritan Caregivers' Chocolate Celebration, which is in its 22nd year.

She was there to represent Howard County's American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Her sister Misha Huffman started the local fundraiser after her son survived a battle with cancer. Huffman died from cancer last year.

Ferguson explained the carnival theme was meant to get children interested in the booth. She hoped they would get involved with Howard County's Relay for Life, which will be held in Foster Park on Sept. 14.

"We're out here helping a nonprofit, just like we're a nonprofit," Ferguson said. "We're having fun out here."

A steady stream of patrons flowed into the building when doors first opened for the fundraiser aimed at helping Howard County seniors age independently. They bottlenecked a bit toward the ticket booths, trading cash for tickets that could be exchanged for treats.

Ticket prices went up this year. $20 could be exchanged for five tickets.

"It's for a good cause," Anne Conyers, coordinator of the Chocolate Celebration, said of the price increase.

Roughly an hour into the event, 1,521 tickets had been exchanged.

Down another hallway, Java Gems were experiencing their first Chocolate Celebration.

Co-owner Melanie Crystal explained the Lafayette-based coffee roasting business started in January. With more than 1,000 people expected to attend the annual fundraiser, she said it seemed like a good way to get the business' name out there.

Tickets at the booth could be exchanged for miniature bags of chocolate-themed coffee, including mocha, fudge brownie and mint chocolate chip varieties.

Yoke Social Table handed out snickerdoodle cake balls. Elvin Gutierrez, one of the restaurant's owners, explained the treats aren't on Yoke's menu — they were a portable reimagining of the restaurant's flufflies.

"Especially for an event that's about 20 years in, it's nice to get in," he said. Gutierrez added several familiar faces had stopped by to grab the snickerdoodle treats. The morning was going well.

"Piece of cake," he said as a patron swooped in to grab a box of pastries. "We've got a good system going."

After the first hour, community judges were finished taste-testing each of the treats. Ribbons began appearing on vendor tables shortly after.

Humble Home, a local furniture store, received one of the ribbons for its dog-themed table display. Renee Chandler, the owner, explained it was their way of letting people know the shop was dog-friendly.

Her golden retriever Potato even greets customers and appears in some of the shop's advertising.

Complementing the table's theme, the vendor served puppy chow bars made of peanut butter, chocolate, marshmallows, powdered sugar and rice. They were handed out in doggy bags.

"We're surprised," Chandler said of the award. "We're excited, though."

A crowd gathered around Rozzi's Catering's table before it won a ribbon for best savory option. During its second year at the Chocolate Celebration, the company served grilled cheese sandwiches.

Shredded machaca beef, American cheese and chocolate shavings were piled on top of slices of Italian bread and slapped on a portable griddle.

Sue Bond, who works for the catering company, explained the team had been looking forward to the Chocolate Celebration for months. They experimented with several recipes, like chocolate chili, before deciding on the sandwiches.

"I've seen so many things that look absolutely delicious today," Bond said. "Everybody comes and brings their best."

Sweet buildings

Teams of Kokomo Area Career Center culinary students brought back their annual competition. They were handed bags of Nutella, marshmallows of varying sizes, graham crackers, pretzels and candy to build an edible structure of their choosing.

One group decided to model their treats after Carl, a cupcake character from the Five Nights at Freddy's video game franchise. They used team member Cayla Hill's earrings as a reference.

"I think the entire process is really fun," said Cal Langdon.

At another table, students struggled to make a bridge made of pretzel sticks held together with Nutella and marshmallows. They transitioned to building a fort halfway through the competition.

Further down the line, one group used pretzel sticks as support beams to hold up a graham cracker house. They were fairly confident it would keep its structural integrity.

The winning team designed a summer camp. Blue M&Ms forked through their presentation board to represent a river. A bridge and train tracks made of pretzels overlapped the candy. Graham cracker tents and a chocolate bonfires filled the rest of the board.

Keira Andrysiak explained the group started with a marshmallow train. It was a reference to the first thing they built in class and they wanted to replicate it for their last hurrah before graduating.

"Never give up on your hopes and dreams," Sam Stephens said after winning.

Coming to an end

With less than an hour left for the fundraiser, a handful of businesses that sold out of their treats began to pack up.

A few late stragglers trickled into the building to pick up treats. In a side office, Volunteers from Western High School's honor society and Samaritan Caregivers counted the last handful of tickets.

It was too close to announce the people's choice winner early — the two lead tables had a difference of 14 tickets going into the last count.

The final tally came in at 3,864 total tickets, representing $15,460 raised. While fewer tickets were exchanged this year compared to the 2023 Chocolate Celebration, it was an increase from last year's $13,400 in ticket sales.

A silent auction for baskets of more treats brought in an additional $1,282.

Solidarity Community Federal Credit Union won the people's choice award by eight tickets. The company had sold out of its sweet and salty cookies, though, and packed up before it could take home the winning ribbon.

Primrose Retirement Community of Kokomo came in second place.

Abundant Life Church collected the most tickets among the seven new vendors. It served iced mocha coffee from Zoé Café, the church's coffee shop.

Jamey Henderson, executive director of Samaritan Caregivers, said it had been a wonderful year for the fundraiser. She gave a shout out to the volunteers, sponsors and customers.

"We are extremely grateful for the depth of our community," Henderson said.

James Bennett III can be reached at 765-454-8580 or