High schoolers impress judges with gingerbread houses.

Picking just one grand prize winner out of more than four dozen gingerbread houses proved difficult for judges Pat Whitham, Brenda Rome and Carole Geier on Wednesday afternoon.

"My first impressions are that there is a lot of young talent in southwest Kansas," Whitham said.

Rome agreed.

"They are very creative. It's hard to pick a winner," she said.

The three women were asked to judge the first-ever Gingerbread House Art contest sponsored by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties.

Tammy Davis, BBBS executive director, was excited about the creativity and talent shown by the young artists.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think we were going to get the cool houses that we got," she said.

The contest was open to high school students from Garden City, Holcomb, Lakin and Deerfield, though only Lakin and Deerfield students entered. The goal was to create gingerbread houses as part of a contest and fundraiser for BBBS.

Davis said Garden City Community College donated $500 for the grand prize, which the winner can use toward college. About 50 entries were submitted, and some kids worked in groups to prepare their house.

The top artist or artists from each school have their artwork, other than the gingerbread house, displayed at Garden City Arts in downtown Garden City. Winners will be announced at today's auction and sale.

All of the gingerbread houses will be up for sale at today's silent auction and sale from 1 to 5 p.m. at Horace Good Middle School, 1412 N. Main St., in the inside courtyard through the front door. All proceeds go to support BBBS. In addition to the gingerbread houses, there will be other items for sale, as well as prize drawings and holiday decor.

Admission is free. Refreshments will be provided, and pictures with Santa will be available for $5.

Davis said in addition to raising money, the contest also was intended to encourage participating in art, something many of the students involved with BBBS enjoy. A few fifth- through eighth-graders in the BBBS program also made gingerbread houses, though they won't be included in the contest.

"They overwhelmed me with what they did," Davis said.

Students had about six or seven weeks to make their houses. The only guideline or rules were to build a gingerbread house using any materials.

"I told them to use their imaginations," Davis said. "I thought I was going to have small gingerbread houses that people could set on their mantle or for decoration. They blew me away. They're huge. They're doll house size, and they're so intricate and extravagant."

It's obvious how much time and effort students put into the project. Davis pointed out one large house that had dozens of gumdrops, which were cut in half, glued to the roof.

Some of the projects included:

* A hockey rink, complete with a candy light system, with gingerbread men skaters holding candy cane hockey sticks.

* A sugar cube igloo with a light system inside that rotates through several different colors, surrounded by penguins and a blue, gel-like body of water.

* A chocolate colored "Nightmare before Christmas" with tombstone and skeleton in front surrounded by a black licorice fence and licorice and coffee bean roof.

* A house made entirely out of pop cans and cardboard flats.

"You just want to see what's going on in there," Rome said while examining the windows of one house.

"They took a lot of time. They did a really good job," Davis said.

Money raised at today's auction and sale will help fund BBBS mentoring programs. Those programs are in high demand. Davis said in the past year, 403 kids were matched with volunteer mentors, but BBBS is always in need of more volunteers.

Davis said that just last month, 80 children were matched with volunteers, but the number of kids still on a waiting list for a big brother or sister is more than 100 right now.

"There are kids that need somebody. If anyone is looking to volunteer, we've got all kinds of options during the day or on your own time on weekends," she said. "And the kids are excited. All the kids in our program want to be in it. They can't wait to have a 'big.' Nobody's here because they have to be. They're excited when they know someone is going to come."