A $12,500 donation to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Helicopter unit Henry 1 marks the start of a fundraising effort to keep the tactical team in full service.

The Healdsburg-based John Jordan Foundation made the donation in late August, the first major contribution to the group, called Friends of Henry 1.

Primarily run by volunteers with the sheriff's search and rescue team, the Friends of Henry 1 incorporated in February, earning nonprofit status. The group aims to offset the high cost of running the helicopter unit.

"We're looking at augmenting the current budget, not replacing the budget, (by) bringing the paramedic program back, replacing equipment, increasing flight hours," said Tim Admire, board treasurer and search-and-rescue volunteer, who works for Exchange Bank.

The million-dollar helicopter program is running with reduced flight hours in the midst of pressure for county agencies to tighten costs.

John Jordan Foundation president Lisa Wittke Schaffner said that, as "a sheriff's kid" whose father was a reserve deputy, she brought an impassioned pitch to the foundation to support the helicopter.

"I just believe the helicopter is very, very important to the safety of this county," Wittke Schaffner said. "We have areas of this county police can't reach in a half an hour."

The proposed budget for the helicopter program is $1.5 million for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Currently, part-time paramedics join the team.

Under pressure to slash the department budget last year, Sheriff Steve Freitas proposed cutting the helicopter program, although the funding was eventually restored. The threat led a group of search-and-rescue volunteers to circulate petitions in support of the helicopter.

They brought 1,500 signatures last summer to a board of supervisors hearing, Admire said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Valerie Brown and other board members encouraged the group to start raising money.

"It was time to see if there could be another way to raise some funds to help support Henry 1," Brown said.

Donations not only bolster the program's budget, they also show there's community support, Brown said.

Friends of Henry 1 has raised just under $15,000 since February, including the John Jordan Foundation contribution as well as $1,000 from a woman who was rescued by the helicopter team, Admire said.

The nonprofit's long-term goal is to raise $6.1 million and replace the current airship with a Bell 429 helicopter.

The board will start applying for large public grants to reach that goal, Admire said.

But so far the seven-month-old organization has started small.

"There's nothing like money to raise money. It really does incentivize people to get involved," said Brown.

Search-and-rescue volunteers handed out fliers and stickers at Santa Rosa's Wednesday Night Market and are planning a fundraising and auction event for 2013.

Sheriff's Sgt. Ed Hoener, who heads the Sheriff's Office helicopter unit, is the board president.

The other members include search-and-rescue volunteers Teresa Taveres, Dan Johnston, Valerie Silva and Sue Hayes, as well as E.B. "Pete" Downs. Downs is a former vice president with Jackson Family Wines.

The group runs a website at www.friendsofhenry1.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220, julie.johnson @pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @jjpressdem.