Ingenuity at work
Relief sale volunteers use their creativity to support MCC no matter what changes a global pandemic brings.
Top photo caption: A preview of quilts and other online auction items for the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale coincided with a drive-thru food event in Kidron, Ohio, in September 2020. MCC photo/Jennifer Steiner
In most years, MCC relief sales bring hours of shared fun — from communal pancake breakfasts to buildings packed with people bidding on quilts — and raise millions of dollars for MCC’s work around the world.
In 2020, though, the coronavirus pandemic meant that most sales could not take place in traditional formats — a blow for an important revenue stream for MCC.
“In 2019, relief sales in the U.S. donated over $3.5 million to MCC, which contributes to significant work done by our partners around the world,” says Les Gustafson-Zook, MCC relief sale coordinator.
"We realized that at a time when MCC needed funds more than ever ... we felt that we needed to do something to help with the funds, even though it wouldn’t be our traditional sale."
But organizers found creative new ways to keep the spirit of relief sales alive and to raise money for MCC in a safe way.
“We realized that at a time when MCC needed funds more than ever, relief sales were being canceled, thrift shops were closed and congregations weren’t meeting in person, which translated to less funds going to MCC,” says Brenda Latulippe of Uniontown, Ohio, co-chair of the Ohio Mennonite Relief Sale & Auction board. “We felt that we needed to do something to help with the funds, even though it wouldn’t be our traditional sale.”
Around the U.S., recent efforts such as virtual auctions, drive-thru food events, outdoor concerts and more — from virtual runs to online popcorn orders — have brought in tens of thousands of dollars for MCC.
“It’s been amazing to see the creative energy bubbling up from our relief sale boards to provide fun opportunities for generosity to make up for the absence of their traditional sales,” says Gustafson-Zook.
Sales found safe ways to offer some of the delicious food that is a staple of the relief sale experience. The Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale raised $18,000 in a mere two hours by selling barbecue chicken dinners, and many other sales across the country also found success through drive-thru food events.
Of course, for many relief sales, the main events are the auctions featuring beautiful quilts, handmade wood pieces and other items. Many sales transitioned to virtual auctions — some even had live webcasts with auctioneers to increase the excitement and entertainment value.
The West Coast Celebration for World Relief in Fresno, California, and the Southern California Festival & Sale in Upland, California, teamed up to auction “100 Quilts for 100 Years” to highlight MCC’s centennial year. Nine more sales held online auctions, selling as many as 850 quilts in all.
With the added opportunity for people to participate from across the country, some sales even generated more funds than usual this year. The Oregon Mennonite Festival for World Relief surpassed organizers’ $100,000 fundraising goal by more than $20,000. The sale’s board chair, Gene Stutzman of Albany, Oregon, credits the combined forces of longtime volunteers and new energy from younger people such as Hilary Shirk, communications coordinator for the festival. Shirk lives in Portland, Oregon.“I think there are a lot of young folks out there who want to be involved in a community or charity event, especially since the pandemic began,” Shirk says. “So for younger folks who are ‘digital natives,’ the format of an online event is a low barrier to participation, especially if this is their first time being involved.”
The Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale held its vehicle auction online this year and sold tractors, cars and even an all-terrain vehicle. In addition to auctioning quilts online, the Pennsylvania Relief Sale held its first-ever online coin auction.
"It’s been amazing to see the creative energy bubbling up from our relief sale boards to provide fun opportunities for generosity to make up for the absence of their traditional sales."
When Twin Cities MCC World Relief Sale in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, had to cancel the in-person sale this year, sale board members issued a “Thanks (for) a Million” challenge, seeking to raise $50,000 that would be matched by anonymous donors in honor of MCC’s centennial. They succeeded, bringing the sale’s cumulative total to $1 million in donations to MCC over the past 20 years.
Several sales invited runners and walkers to participate in a virtual “Run for Relief” on their own and submit their times and photos.
In addition to adapting traditional relief sale activities, supporters also employed other creative ways to raise funds for MCC. In Newton, Kansas, Heidi and Tim Huber’s family served up 326 Octoberfest meals in drive-thru fashion in their “Wurst Fundraiser Ever,” inspired by Heidi and Tim’s time serving with MCC in Germany. In Henderson, Nebraska, Carol Janzen raised over $10,000 worth of “dough” by making around 2,000 New Year’s Cookies in her garage with the help of her husband Royce and grandchildren Ben and Maddie Janzen as part of MCC’s “Donut Day” social media fundraiser.
Eliya Lehman, age 8, and her sister Aria Lehman, age 5, had a lemonade stand in Hesston, Kansas, and decided to give MCC all the proceeds to “help children and families around the world have a happy and better life.”
Individual churches also came up with their own fundraisers. And MCC’s My Coins Count children’s giving initiative remained a vital part of relief sales’ fundraising efforts, bringing in over $425,000 through donations and matches within churches and communities.
While raising funds for MCC was the driving force behind the activities, a sense of community and coming together in a safe way was another highlight for Shirk and others.
“We need things that unite us right now more than ever. People are searching for new ways to create community during the pandemic and ways to use their (sometimes newfound) downtime to give back,” says Shirk. “Personally, I find so much value in the Mennonite community and want to do what I can to ensure it continues to be strong for coming generations.”
Jennifer Steiner is communications coordinator for MCC Great Lakes.