I can say I was there. At 5:48 on a Tuesday evening in November, history was made. History and more than one million dollars.
I live in what is arguably one of the poorest counties in the state of Michigan. Mecosta County, with a population of just over 42,000, is 571 square miles of farms, small villages, and the very unlikely home to a college town. Ferris State University, located in Big Rapids, also happens to be the largest employer in the county.
This is the part of America people forget exists; a flyover state, if you will. Around here we know a few things, like who shot a ten point buck on Opening Day (it’s practically a holiday here) or where to catch walleye on the Muskegon. You’re likely to find people in one church pew or another come Sunday morning. If you want to know who gave birth or died, just drive by Currie’s. It’ll be on the big sign.
I see this place the way most people look at a Norman Rockwell painting; it’s idyllic and charming. But, like any painting, it’s often what lies outside the confines of the sturdy wooden frame that tells the real story. For every family that sits down to Sunday dinner, there is one that doesn’t have enough to eat. For every family with a home, there is one waiting for the local shelter to open for the winter. We are both privileged and penniless here. For all its charm, Big Rapids and the surrounding area is much like any place. There is need just beyond the white picket fences and neatly manicured lawns of our little Mayberry.
It was nearly 25 years ago that the Mecosta County Community Foundation (MCCF) was established. Though it’s been through a name change or two, its central focus has never changed; the needs of the community it serves.
The Mission of the Mecosta County Community Foundation is “giving together to enhance our community.”
The Foundation will address community needs for positive change in such fields as art and culture, education, health, nature conservation and the environment, community development, historical resources and social services.
This will be accomplished by attracting, managing and preserving charitable gifts and bequests as community legacies, chiefly in the form of permanent endowments.
Like everything else, the recession hit non-profits particularly hard. The MCCF came up with a novel approach to help fill the gap that existed. The very first Match Day was held in 2010. The rules were simple. Non-profits could bring in donations and they would be “matched” up to a certain dollar amount by the Foundation. A generous “pool” of funds was raised. Word spread quickly. Parochial schools, food pantries, animal shelters and the like were excited at the prospect of receiving much needed funding. In that first year the amount raised was a staggering $253,000!
Each year, the event seems to grow and grow. In 2011, $425,800 was raised. In 2012, $638,400; an amount impossible to top. Until 2013 when the people of Mecosta County donated $898,000! For seven hours on one single day each year, hundreds of people trek to Match Day. Dozens of booths are set up, representing area organizations like Special Olympics, the Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, Angels of Action, and the Animal Rescue Coalition. Schools bring entire classrooms of children to learn about these organizations and to donate.
It isn’t hard to measure the impact. Food pantries will serve area families another year. School bands will continue to play. Children’s camps will open their doors again this summer. Private schools will award much-needed scholarships to students. Endowments will continue to grow, able to meet the needs of the next generation. All because hundreds of people, young and old, wealthy and poor, gave.
Match Day 2014 was, of course, no exception. Held on Veteran’s Day, special tributes were given to the men and women that served this nation. The morning opened with a color guard followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Each non-profit knew the day’s goal was one million dollars; lofty even for our very generous community. The median income here hovers around $33,000. But with 16.10% of the population below the poverty line, need very often exceeds funding.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” She was right. With only twelve minutes to spare, Foundation President Tim Zehr announced, “You’ve worked harder than ever before. And, as of three minutes ago, we have collected more than $1 million. Every single nickel will stay right here in Mecosta County.”
Our country is deeply polarized on a wide range of issues. It’s heartening to know that for at least one day an entire community can set aside politics, ideology, and rhetoric. For a few short hours, failed leaders are forgotten. Economic uncertainty is pushed aside. Cynicism takes a backseat to optimism. It is in the briefest of moments, looking around a room full of givers that you know hope and change is real. But it doesn’t come from the government. It isn’t found in the false promises of politicians.
No, hope isn’t a tagline. It isn’t a slogan. Hope is the bearer of miracles. And on a cold night in a small Michigan town, we witnessed one.