The Dan Donnelly Backpack barbecue fund-raising organization that grew from a desire to help buy pencils and paper for students has matured to the point it has now become a community benefactor sharing the proceeds from a recent benefit with a local youth group.

The backpack organization held its ninth annual polar bear pork steak cook-off, which positions local barbecue chefs against each other, Jan. 26 in the warmest weather in the history of the competition.

Some 22 teams of cookers set up their tents around the Eagles parking lot on West Congress, basking in bright sunlight and 45-degree temperatures to compete for barbecue bragging rights with all the hoopla of a major league sports tailgate party.

For the seventh year in a row, Heather Filley chaired the event.

Donnelly and his wife started the backpack project using their own funds. Initially, events like the polar bear cook-off raised funds to purchase backpacks and school supplies for area children. But the program has grown in support with the public and streams of individuals, organizations and businesses coming forward to contribute.

Now, at an August celebration the weekend before school starts, the program provides new backpacks filled with grade-appropriate school supplies for more than 500 area students and distributes new bicycles, computers and computer games. Free haircuts also are offered.

The first organization to join Donnelly’s efforts was the Pacific Eagles who offered to hold a barbecue at their 707 W. Union building. To add a little spice, they created a competition, set rules and recruited judges to sit in a back room. The judges never see the cooks, but taste samples from each entrant identified only by a number.

On Jan. 26, cook-off organizers handed out the pork steaks at 11 a.m. and chefs had until 3 p.m. to prepare their entries and turn them in to the judges.

This year’s judges were Walter Arnette, Carol Johnson, Police Chief Matt Mansell and Rick Schultz, who tasted samples and graded the taste and texture with a possible 40 points.

Jeff Filley’s pork steaks took the top prize with 37 points and Filley carried home the plaque. Second place and an Olympics-style medal went to Leonard Clark with 34 points. Third-place medal went to Chris Dattoli with 33 points.

Proceeds for the event were shared with the Pacific Police Explorers Club, which will use the funds so members can attend the National Law Enforcement Explorers Conference at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind., July 14-19.

“It’s a great opportunity for the explorers,” said Jill Pigg, Explorers Club parent. “They have been studying to take part in team competitions.”

Local explorer clubs will be allowed to match skills with clubs from across the country in the areas of arrest and search, bomb threat response, crime prevention, domestic crisis intervention, judgment pistol shooting, crisis negotiation, burglary in progress, traffic accident investigation, traffic stop, white collar crime and emergency field first aid.

“It’s our first conference since we started four years ago,” Pigg said.