George Maas' family worked at fund raising when his niece needed a heart transplant, but he thought there had to be a better way.

"We had benefit dinners and we had jars," he said. "Here was half of the family trying to collect money instead of being with her."Maas and other workers at the Amalgamated Sugar Co. plant in Paul came up with an answer. Employees had watched as a co-worker became ill, ran out of sick days and vacation and eventually could no longer make insurance payments. So Maas and almost everyone else at the factory chipped in.

Maas then proposed the workers start taking $1 from each paycheck to form a relief fund.

"They went for it," he said. In 1991, they helped a woman through back surgery.

Since then, they have distributed more than $30,000 to about 25 people. Each beneficiary has faced some problem such as cancer, an organ transplant or a house fire.

Today, 158 of 274 employees take part. The Amalgamated plant in Nyssa, Ore., is trying to set up a similar fund.

"I think it's one of the best things we have in the community," Maas said. But we just don't have the money to help everybody."

The recipients are grateful, however.

"They did great, I thought," said Burley resident Sherman Couch, 60, who was hooked to a heart pump - without insurance - while the sugar plant workers held an auction and benefit dinner to help him get a new heart. He figures his first heart lasted for years, so his new one should hold up.

"This gets me to around 2054," he said.

Maas was surprised to find out recently the employees had given away $33,371 since the fund started.

"I didn't realize how much until we tallied it up at the last board meeting," he said. "I was astonished."