The ELCA Outreach Center Spring Benefit is normally a big to-do — a lavishly decorated floral-themed banquet room at The Club at Strawberry Creek, hundreds of guests in their finest attire, top-notch speakers and a silent auction, but this year things looked a bit different.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the way the charity fundraised this year, but it didn’t stop them from raising a record amount this spring.
Using a YouTube video and some creativity, the nonprofit organization managed to raise a record $42,000, which will allow the center to continue and build their outreach programs.
This year’s benefit, originally planned for May 7, was especially significant as they lost two major grants and were looking at cutting salaries and possibly some programs, explained Karl Erickson, executive director of the center.
“I was pretty shocked to raise so much without an actual dinner,” he said. “I think people realized what the need was. We are so grateful that this is all profit, as we had no actual expenses to host this event.”
When benefit organizer Ellen Brookhouse realized they weren’t going to have an actual dinner, she approached benefit committee member Paul West of Westwords Consulting to design the “Dinner of the Spirit” invitations. The carefully worded invitation was mailed with the original ones to their supporters and suggested that patrons don festive clothing, pour a glass of wine and envision dinner with the other guests while offering a prayer for the outreach center’s continued success from across the community.
The center also asked supporters to donate their $75 dinner reservation to the outreach center or sponsor a Spirit Table in honor of their family gathered together that evening. Though there weren’t any auction items, donors were also asked to donate their limit with the knowledge that each dollar collected would directly support the mission.
“We had professional fundraisers compliment us on the letter Westwords wrote to our supporters. They said it was well-worded and meaningful,” said Erickson. “The amount of generosity and the people who took out checkbooks to help is incredible.”
Still active though closed
Though the outreach center has been technically closed since March 18, they have been distributing lunches at Kenosha Unified on Mondays and Wednesdays and have helped those in need with diapers, formula, socks and prescription co-pays. Erickson said they have not been able to do clothing distribution yet due to a lack of volunteers. He hopes to resume that over the summer.
“The main thing we need to get back to is clothes, as we have many people who rely on them,” Erickson said. “We have given some of the homeless socks or pants because they are easy for us to go back and grab, but we have no new donations and no new volunteers to come in and process them. We thought about distributing them in the parking lot, but then we have the issue of people touching clothes that others have touched. Hopefully, we will figure it out by the end of June and then expand what we are doing.”
The donations received from “The Dinner of the Spirit” are enough to replace everything the center lost due to the grant funds disappearing and will allow the center to continue the Spanish GED program.
“We are also looking to begin an English GED program, which was something we planned to do with the grant,” Erickson said. “Our GED programs are great, as we include childcare so that — while parents are learning their GED — the children are being well cared for. The high school diploma is important as even entry-level jobs require a high school diploma.”
The center has resumed their legal advice program and currently clients meet with attorneys through Zoom. The attorneys will help those in need with nearly any type of legal issue except criminal.
“The attorneys help with cases like divorce, bankruptcy and guardianship,” said Erickson, adding, “They were on track for 350-400 clients before COVID-19, but the program will get going as there is no place to do this in the area but here.”
Erickson said he is grateful for the generosity of the outreach center’s supporters and estimates that 85 percent of the donations came from those living in Kenosha County and the remainder from those who have lived in the county but moved away.
“Everyone was hit so hard due to this virus that we had no idea what would come in,” he said. “I was so shocked because every day when I would get the mail, there would be another donation. People are very generous, and there is a good spirit out there. I think this shows how many trust the center and what we do here. I also think that because we are Christian and Lutheran that this helps too.”