Q&A: Jackie Jennings readies for Clue Caper

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Tony Weeg Photo

Jackie Lanza Jennings hasn’t been a daily presence on our television sets in more than a decade, but she still plays a big part in our community.

As coordinator of the Great Clue Caper, Jennings leads an event that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Village of Hope. In just its sixth year, the Clue Caper — because of its financial success, its popularity as social event and the sheer fun of it all as reported by its contestants and participants — has become the fundraiser to which all local fundraisers are compared.

Watching Jennings lead the Clue Caper each year is a lot like watching her on TV. When delivering the news, Jackie Lanza had a sure command of what she was telling viewers. She was able to deftly mix the serious with the personable, and make confusing things understandable.

In presiding over Clue Caper, that same personality is on display. With Jackie Lanza Jennings in command, an event with a serious purpose becomes personable and fun; the confusion of 50 teams in pursuit of clues has an organized chaos atmosphere that eases into a comprehensible ride as the day goes on.

Q. What is the Village of Hope?

A. The Village of Hope is a transitional home for women and children who are facing homelessness or come from a homeless situation. We have 14 apartments, and the families can stay for up to two years in our Steps to Success program.

We provide a case worker, counseling, parenting and budgeting classes and many other resources to help the women move into a position of self-sufficiency. They are required to be in school or have a job, pay rent and be drug tested.

Two years may seem like a long time, but many women come from a long history of homelessness, so we want to give them as much help as possible to break that cycle.

Q. How did you get involved with the Village of Hope?

A. I was asked to be on the Village of Hope board seven or eight years ago. At the time, my children were toddlers, and I tried to imagine a scenario of having no place to tuck them in at night, no family safety net, no way to keep them protected.

As a parent, you do what you have to do to keep your children safe and I felt an obligation to help other moms do the same. It really comes down to “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

I believe that very strongly.

Q. What is the Great Clue Caper?

A. The GCC is a crazy, crazy scavenger hunt that raises money for the Village of Hope.

We have family teams, co-worker teams, just about every age and demographic you can think of. Teams compete to solve puzzles and find clues all over Wicomico County. Once they find a location, they have to complete a task: kayak across a pond, win a game of cornhole, audition for a play … something.

The team that solves the most clues and completes the most tasks in three hours wins $1,000. The winning team also gets an additional $1,000 from us to donate to the charity of their choice. Everyone wins because we have a big party at the end with food and adult beverages and prizes for the Best Dressed Team, Best Team Name and a bunch of others.

This is the sixth year for the event and it seems to just gets more popular. We limit the Clue Caper to about 50 teams, so if you want to sign up, do it soon.

Registration is on our website: www.greatcluecaper.com. We raise about $50,000 a year and we have great many great sponsors, including our premier sponsor this year, Gateway Subaru.

My fantastic planning committee usually eats most of the cost of the event, so nearly every penny goes to the Village of Hope.

 Q. What’s the funniest thing that ever happened regarding one of the teams (or clues)?

A. I am so busy during the Clue Caper that I don’t get to see much of it, but I love to hear the stories when the teams get to the party.

It’s amazing how often team members interpret the clues completely differently from one another. I don’t think anyone has come to blows, but I do know that many husbands and wives end up on separate teams the following year.

One team ended up in Virginia a few years ago and missed the party completely.

The first year we had a clue that said “look under Trucks.” The correct answer was to look under “Trucks” in the newspaper classified ads because there was a clue there.

I’m still hearing about teams that spent three hours that Sunday afternoon combing parking lots and looking under every pick-up they could find.

Q. Where is the event held? How long does it take?

A. The Clue Caper starts at the Village of Hope on Lake Street on April 12, but you can’t just show up; you have to register ahead of time. (www.greatcluecaper.com)

Check-in opens at 11 a.m. and the race begins at 1 p.m. Teams have to be at the finish line by 4 p.m. to win. The party usually lasts until 6 p.m.

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Q. Where did you all get the idea for the event?

A. My mom comes from a huge family and every year they would have a big family scavenger hunt. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to be old enough to participate because the stories were just outrageous.

Ten years ago I started to think about a way to turn it into a fundraiser. The Village of Hope board had enough faith in me to let me try. By then, the CBS show “The Amazing Race” was popular, so it was easy to explain the concept to people. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q. What should I do if I think I’m interested in participating?

A. Find two or three smart friends and sign up! Teams can have up to five people and registration is all online, so it’s easy. www.greatcluecaper.com

Q. Do you need any help or volunteers?

A. I am always looking for local businesses who may want to host a clue location or sponsor us. I’m also looking for donated prizes to give out at the end of the race. Anyone who is interested in helping in any way –- or has a great idea for a clue — can email me at greatcluecaper@comcast.net.

Q. How do you come up with the clues?

A. I’m not giving away any secrets. We’ve had clues in Morse code, anagram clues, math clues. “Honored men do print goals.” That applies here. The teams are catching on to me so I have to change it up every year.

Q. Do you miss being on TV every day?

A. I loved my work at WBOC, and I’m very inquisitive — read: nosy — so I do miss digging in to a really good story.

Q. I’ve always been amazed that the way news is depicted and told – especially on television — can really affect a community’s self-esteem. Do you see that?

A. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it that way, but I understand what you mean. Especially in this market, when you have one media powerhouse, that can certainly happen.

I think most reporters know they have a responsibility to not only capture the facts of a story, but the tone of the event.

We’ve all heard the saying “if it bleeds, it leads” when talking about local news, and it’s a struggle to fight that, especially when cable news is becoming so sensational. I heard a reporter on CNN the other day say something to the effect of “the scene is so calm, I feel like I have to inject some urgency into the situation.”

And I thought, “Really? No, you don’t.”

Q. Favorite story you ever covered?

A. I could never choose. Opening day of Perdue Stadium was really fun, and I always loved our “remote” shows at Springfest or the Chicken Festival. It was fascinating to talk to Frank Perdue or Dick Henson or Donald Schaefer.

One of my favorite stories was an article I wrote for the newspaper, not TV: A gentleman in France found an ID bracelet buried in a field and spent years looking for the owner. It turned out the bracelet belonged to an American soldier from Delmarva who lost it in Normandy during World War II.

I interviewed his widow after the ID bracelet was returned to her. It was chilling to listen to her stories about wartime on Delmarva.

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Q. People in the news business can definitely be news obsessed. Are you still news obsessed?

A. Yes, although I read more news than I watch. I love that I can have a dozen newspaper apps on my iPhone.

Q. You left TV in your prime to have a family. Do you miss your TV career?

A. I’m still in my prime.

Q. What are you doing now?

A. I work for Piedmont Airlines, in corporate communications. I grew up in the airline industry and I’m almost as obsessed with air travel as I am with news, so it’s a good fit.

You’ve stayed in the community and you’ve worked with several nonprofits.

Q. Talk about what it means to live here and give back to your community.

A. I think we all want to live and work in a thriving community, and that’s not going to happen unless everyone rolls up their sleeves and pitches in.

This town is amazingly philanthropic; it’s rare that I ask for help or a donation or look for a volunteer and don’t get a response.

I’ve learned that people really want to help; you just have to ask them. I also believe in karma, and I know for a fact that the more you give, the more you get back.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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