Amid a Grinch of a Pandemic, Charities Hope for Happier Holidays

WARREN, Ohio — With the holiday season in full swing, charity organizations are doing what they can to address the greater need among residents, and ensure families can have a Merry Christmas — and so are local businesses.

Covelli Enterprises made its annual donation of $15,000 to the Toys for Tots program Friday, a company tradition for more than 35 years. Sgts. Cesar Moreno and Jeffrey Xochical joined team members at Panera Bread, 3641 Elm Road NE here, to receive the monetary donation.

“It is a true privilege to be able to partner with the Marines Toys for Tots program,” said Sam Covelli, owner and operator of Covelli Enterprises. “This has been a cause we’ve supported for more than three decades, and it’s because we are committed to taking care of people in our communities, especially children and especially during the holiday season.”

The company donated bags of new toys as well, some of which were purchased by office employees, said Covelli’s director of marketing, Ashlee Mauti. Covelli usually spends about $1,000 on toys.

“We give that donation as well as the monetary,” Mauti said. “The monetary is important because it gives them the opportunity to see what the need is and then they can purchase what is needed in the Valley.”

Often, some of the money is used to purchase bicycles, she noted.

Colleen Rose, general manager for Panera Bread on Elm Road in Warren, presents the $15,000 Toys for Tots donation to U.S. Marine Sgts. Jeffrey Xochicale and Cesar Moreno.

Sgt. Moreno is coordinator for the local 2020 Toys for Tots campaign, which he said has been a success, although “it doesn’t compare to the previous years.”

Donations this year total about $34,000, some $11,000 down from the $45,000 collected last year, he said, “which is a big difference.” He cites the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the decline.

“But the fact that we’re still able to produce more than $30,000 is a huge success,” Moreno said. “Your donations mean the world to the kids.”

Last year, the Vienna-based Toys for Tots campaign distributed 27,718 toys to 7,960 children, according to its website. Typically, there are enough toys donated to distribute five or six toys to each child, he said. With more families in need this year, however, “they’ll get maybe two to three.”

The pandemic has made it difficult for companies and organizations to donate what they typically give, affirms Chuck Whitman, president of CTW Development Corp. CTW’s Kennsington Golf Club & Grille has held an annual toy donation drive for 14 years. Its biggest year saw some 900 toys donated.

For every toy donated that’s valued at $10 or more, Kennsington donates nine holes of free golf. Typically, the event is held during the Ohio State University vs. University of Michigan college football game and includes a big tent party with raffles. Because of the pandemic, however, that event could not happen, Whitman said.

“We’re getting toys in, but not like we did before,” he said.

Similarly, the pandemic has disrupted donations to the Salvation Army and its annual Red Kettle campaign. As of Dec. 10, the Salvation Army of Mahoning County has collected about $45,000, “which is obviously way down from last year,” says Major Paul Moore, and officer with the branch.

Typically, the Mahoning County branch is closing in on $100,000 to $120,000 by this time each year. The last 10 days of the drive “are huge,” Moore said, typically putting the organization over $200,000 annually.

One issue facing the Salvation Army is manpower, Moore said. The organization usually brings on 60 to 70 paid workers annually, of whom 40 to 50 are out in the community ringing bells, he said.

Concerns over COVID-19 kept most of them away this year, he said. The organization received 11 applications this year and hired just seven of them.

“Some of the churches that have done it in the past, because some of their members are older, aren’t going to do it this year,” Moore said.

Rotarian Gerri Jenkins rings a bell for the Salvation Army outside the Giant Eagle in Poland.

The Salvation Army brings on volunteers as well. During a recent weekend, 16 members of the Rotary Club of Youngstown, including newly elected club president Samantha Turner, volunteered to ring bells outside of Giant Eagle grocery store in Poland from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Over those two days, the Rotary volunteers collected $1,220.46, which is up from less than $1,000 that was raised last year, said David Stillwagon, Rotarian and board member for the Mahoning County Salvation Army. Stillwagon is also CEO of Community Corrections Association, Youngstown.

“I was pleasantly surprised that we were over the $1,000 threshold,” Stillwagon said. “Not only do they rely on those donations coming in, but corporate sponsors as well.”

Those sponsorships bring in about $70,000, Moore notes. All donations up to this point are critical to meet the greater need in the area, he said.

Last year, the Salvation Army served some 1,200 kids and about 700 families through its toy shop, and also providded winter coats, boots and food, he said. Currently, the organization has 1,500 kids in need from 900 families, of whom 30% to 35% are either new or haven’t needed assistance from the organization in years.

Because of COVID-19 precautions among retailers, the organization had to start later than usual, Moore notes. Workers and volunteers are usually out in mid-November, but this year, most places waited until Black Friday to allow workers to man their kettles, he said.

Rotarians Samantha Turner, president, Sydney Turner, Josh Prest and Charlie Patchak volunteered for the Salvation Army this year.

The Salvation Army is also dealing with fewer storefronts this year. Some of the stores they usually count on have guidelines that are too strict to follow consistently, such as constantly wiping down and sanitizing the kettle as people put money in, Moore noted. And because retail stores are seeing less foot traffic during the pandemic, that also takes a toll on collections.

“Everything that we’re used to in the past, it’s totally different this year,” Moore said.

Fortunately, the organization received a number of grants and assistance from area foundations throughout the pandemic before the holiday season, he said. That assistance includes $10,000 grants each from the Youngstown Foundation, Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley and the Raymond John Wean Foundation in Warren, as well as another $5,000 from the Wean Foundation, he said.

A nearly $10,000 grant from the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley enabled the Salvation Army to purchase a freezer and some meat to provide meals during the height of the pandemic in April, Moore said.

If the kettle campaign falls short of its usual marks, Moore is hopeful the donations collected during the year will help get the organization through the better part of 2021.

“People have been generous since early in the year,” Moore said. “Even though our Christmas money is down right now, we do have a little bit of a balance. We can still breathe, thank goodness. But we don’t know what tomorrow is going to hold.”

Pictured at top: On hand for the check presentation at Panera Bread on Elm Road are Marine Corps Sgt. Cesar Moreno; Colleen Rose, general manager; Sgt. Jeffrey Xochicale; and Panera employees Kristen Siebenaller, Kimberly Lamb, Tiffany Lavalliere, Payton Bell, Leann Tenney and April Gorlitz.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.