Genesee County charities struggle during pandemic

GENESEE COUNTY — In the dark cloud that was 2020, the proverbial silver lining shone through in the form of charitable giving.

Global marketing agency TOP Data analyzed consumer spending and conducted a post-Christmas survey, and found that charitable donations were up 25 percent in December 2020, as compared to December 2019.

The average American donated $608 last year, while the average Michiganian gave $439, the data showed.

In Genesee County, the Old Newsboys, Whaley Children’s Center, the Salvation Army and other organizations that depend on fundraisers and donations felt the pinch, but not as hard as they anticipated.

The Old Newsboys of Flint not only had to deal with COVID-19, but also the loss of Executive Director Chris Hamilton on March 1.

The staff said 2020 may have been difficult from many perspectives, but in all they managed to exceed their goal of helping more than 5,000 Genesee County children.

Following the loss of Hamilton, the organization brought in Tony Tucker, former owner of Krystal Jo’s Diner and organizer of a popular bicycle give-away.

Tucker, whom Hamilton picked as his replacement in January 2020, had to learn the job from the ground up, in the midst of a pandemic and without the tutelage of Hamilton, who had held the position for years.

“I was hoping to shadow Chris for a while, so he could help break me in a little bit, and I could understand a little more,” said Tucker. “Fortunately, between the (staff), the notes they’ve made for me and notes that Chris left on some of the forms I’ve gotten by, but I have a long way to go. There’s still a lot more to learn.”

Old Newsboys of Flint was formed in 1924, and after its first newspaper drive, 210 children across Genesee County found presents under the tree. To date, more than 824,000 children have received gifts from Santa via the Old Newsboys.

Heather McMullen, finance director and warehouse manager, said they canceled many smaller fundraisers in 2020, but were able to hold their two biggest events – the golf outing and the newspaper sales.

Both had some changes to make them more socially distanced. The golf outing didn’t have the buffet lunch; instead, golfers received box lunches to take with them.

For the newspaper sale, they gave the Old Newsboys lots of hand sanitizer and buckets to collect money.

“We had to be very creative to come up with different ideas,” said McMullen. “For the golf and the paper sale. We had to spend money to make money.”

Old Newsboys also came up with a new online enrollment system for families seeking assistance, so the only contact with the public occurred when they picked up their boxes.

“So, there’s been a lot of things we’ve had to change and adapt to, but we did, we made it work,” said McMullen. “We don’t know what 2021 will bring, but as of right now we know we have a handful of smaller fundraisers that still won’t happen.”

Overall, 2020 was difficult, but people were generous and some even came up with innovative ways to raise money – like drive-through newspaper sales in Grand Blanc and a former client who raised money on her own to give back to the organization that helped her as a child.

“We may have been down a little bit, but it was nothing like we expected,” said McMullen. “People really came out and supported our organization. We couldn’t be more thankful.”

Lisa Kirk, director of programs and volunteers, said the pandemic did create some additional demand, but it also brought out the good in many people. She said it was common to receive donations of $100 from people who normally give $20.

“With Chris’ passing we had some other generous donations as well,” said Kirk. “It’s unfortunate, but it helped us and that’s what he would have wanted.”

She said Old Newsboys also saw many new supporters join the cause, with a new segment of the community following Tucker as he took over as executive director.

Others also stepped up to help, Kirk said, like TMI Climate Solutions, who donated a variety of in-kind items, coats, hats and clothing as well as $5,000.

Kirk said moving into 2021 with the pandemic still a concern leaves Old Newsboys and many other charities facing uncertainties.

“The challenges are still not knowing if we’re going to be able to hold fundraisers,” said Kirk. “Whether or not it’s going to change it forever or if it’s just going to make it look different. What that impact may be? Will it deter people, or will it increase the outcome?”

At Whaley Children’s Center, the impact from COVID-19 restrictions has been felt both in terms of finances and services. Mindy Williams, president and CEO, said the center received only about one-third of its normal donations, and had to cut back on activities it usually provides for local foster children.

“In terms of both financial and tangible items, we have been significantly down with our donations,” Williams said. “We have definitely cut back on just about everything, including the extra fun things that we would do with the kids each year, like taking them out to eat or going to the skate park.”

Due to visitor restrictions, Whaley had to postpone its mentorship programs that enable volunteers to tutor children or get them involved with sports and arts. The center also had to cancel two of its main annual fundraisers—the Tux & Tennies Gala in May; and the World’s Greatest Office Party in December.

However, the center was able to hold its annual golf tournament at Warwick Hills and its 5th Annual Roof Sit in July at the McDonald’s in Grand Blanc.

Williams said the Roof Sit, in which she and radio hosts Pat and AJ from Cars 108 lived on the roof of McDonald’s for three days, brought in a much needed $75,000.

“It’s definitely an unconventional fundraiser, given that most of our donations were $50 and under and usually in pennies, nickels and dimes,” she said. “But it was so powerful to see all the people pulling up in the drive thru to drop off change in the bucket so our kids could have all the extras they need.”

With COVID restrictions starting to ease up, Williams said Whaley will try to hold a semi-virtual Tux & Tennies Gala on May 22 and its Whaley Golf Classic in September. In the meantime, the center is asking for additional help with essentials.

Currently, the center needs laundry supplies, hygiene products, school supplies and snacks for the 42 children it serves. Monetary donations can be made at, the Whaley Children’s Center Facebook page or by mail at Whaley Children’s Center, 1201 N. Grand Traverse. Flint, MI. 48503.

At the Salvation Army, those red kettles didn’t jingle-jangle so much this year, but online donations and some local businesses stepped up to pick up the slack.

Development Director Joy Peterman said COVID-19 made it tough to find volunteers to ring those familiar bells.

“We rely on (volunteers) a lot,” Peterman said. “So, (in some locations), you just had that lone kettle without a volunteer. People like to see someone.”

Would-be donors may not have known they could drop their change in those unattended kettles. Others likely were concerned about the security of their donations.

“It was a challenge,” Peterman said.

Not only do the Christmas collections support toy distribution, but also rent and utility relief, summer camp, the music program and the organization’s COVID efforts which include providing meals for volunteers distributing the vaccine.

“We were close,” Peterman said. “The projection is going to be 10 to 15 percent down. We were expecting it to be down even more than that; we didn’t know. But the community is very generous and supportive.”

In fact, those numbers would have been less had The Jennings Foundation and Flint Independent Automobile Dealers Association not pitched in and matched the money collected over two “match days,” boosting the total contributions by some $20,000.

Anyone wishing to donate may do so online at or by calling Peterman at 810-232-1684. Donors may designate specific programs they wish to support.

Gary Gould, Lania Rocha and Ben Gagnon contributed to this report.