Relief sales continue to support MCC despite pandemic

MCC relief sales require creativity, flexibility during COVID-19

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The Kansas Relief Sale returned to an in-person format in 2021, although the dates were moved from April to July. Board chair Jim Robb says the sale, held at the Kansas State Fairgrounds in Hutchinson, was a success despite its smaller size. Photo: Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale

Around the country, organizers of relief sales benefitting Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) are holding plans for the 2022 sales loosely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues on into a third year.

In early 2020, when MCC was set to celebrate its centennial year, sales were one by one cancelled or postponed as the reality of COVID-19, particularly its implications for large group gatherings, began setting in.

Two sales typically held in April are the West Coast Celebration for World Relief in Fresno, California, and the Kansas Mennonite Relief Sale in Hutchinson, Kansas The boards overseeing these sales were forced to make quick pivots in planning that March.

Organizers of sales held later in the year, such as the South Dakota MCC Relief Sale in Freeman, South Dakota typically held in July, had perhaps more time to make decisions, but ultimately ended up cancelling in-person events as well.

“In general, when Covid hit in 2020, many sales pivoted to online version of their sales, with some adding drive-thru meals to keep food offerings active,” says Les Gustafson-Zook, Relief Sale Coordinator with MCC.

Online sale success

Steve Goossen, board chair for the West Coast sale, said that literature promoting the sale had already been printed and mailed in March 2020 when the local health department mandated that no large group gatherings should be held. At around that same time, Fresno Pacific University, where the sale is held, closed down its campus and went to online classes.

“We postponed the sale rather than cancelled because we still had quilts to auction off,” says Goossen. “Everybody wanted to wait and see how it would pan out.”

Volunteers for the West Coast Celebration for World Relief help prepare quilts for sale. Sale organizers have held three online quilt auctions in lieu of in-person sales since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: WCCWR

Organizers ultimately decided to try an online quilt auction, complete with a live auctioneer. They moved the auction from April to July to allow time to choose and learn about the software needed, as well as to take and share photographs of the quilts to be sold.

“We had so much support from people; we were just amazed how many people bid on the quilts,” says Goossen. “Because you couldn’t be there in person, that was the next best thing.”

The first auction was successful enough that the board decided to hold another online quilt auction in November 2020, which raised an additional $16,300 for MCC.

A third online auction was held in lieu of an in-person sale on April 10, 2021.

“One thing an online auction allows you to have is more than just your local clientele,” says Goossen. He said they had bids from people all over the United States.

Goossen said the board is currently planning to hold an in-person sale in April of 2022, although those plans are subject to change and decisions have yet to be made about safety protocol, such as whether they will ask attendees to wear masks.

Generosity on display

In Kansas, the board of the Mennonite Relief Sale challenged families and churches to find creative ways to raise money to support MCC in 2020 after the sale was cancelled.

“Our goal was not to get in the way and micromanage, but to support and help with advertising and use our communication system to get the word out for a variety of things,” says Jim Robb, board chair.

Relief sale volunteers moved to selling traditional items like almonds, caps, and yard sticks online; some people sold items such as zwieback out of their homes; and others held drive-through events. Robb says people from all over the state were concerned about MCC, which resulted in their raising close to the usual amount donated to MCC even without the weekend sale in Hutchinson.

What came out was a tremendous amount of generosity,” says Robb.

Heading into 2021, the board worked closely with MCC to determine if an in-person sale could safely be held. The consensus was that a sale held in April would be risky, but a summer sale might be a good alternative.

“We made the decision early to change it to July, knowing that it was going to change the scope and the amount of activity at the sale,” says Robb. “In July in Kansas there’s a lot of wheat harvesting and farm activity. It was a smaller sale and there were things we couldn’t do, things that make sense in March or April but don’t make sense in July.”

Even with the changes Robb feels the 2021 sale was a success, with no reported health incidents resulting and again, a significant amount raised for MCC.

Robb said they plan to return to the usual spring dates for the 2022 relief sale, which is scheduled for April 8-9 at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.

“We’re watching Omicron, and hoping we have enough weeks between now and April for that to drop,” says Robb. “We hope that we’re able to come together and have some community and some feeling of togetherness.”

The theme for the sale this year is based on Romans 15:13 which says in part, “May the God of hope fill you with joy.”

“We’ve come through two extremely difficult, challenging years providing hope to lots of people around the world, and we hope that we’re joyful in that regard,” says Robb.

Organizers stay flexible

Edie Tschetter has been one of the organizers of the South Dakota MCC Relief Sale since 2014. She said that “while it was hard to give up an in-person event [in 2020], the decision was easy because it was the right thing to do.”

“We offered silent bidding on a number of items and also chose numerous MCC projects to which people could contribute in cash,” says Tschetter. “We did this all through church bulletins and church email group mailings and did not do any sales via Internet.”

In planning the July 2021 sale, the sale committee decided to hold the entire event outdoors at the Prairie Arboretum, adjacent to the Freeman Academy Campus where the sale is usually held. They planned for live musical performances, a smaller auction, and pie and ice cream instead of a full sit down meal.

“When the day came, the Covid numbers were at a low point which was a good thing because it rained,” says Tschetter. “We moved everything inside the auditorium and tried to keep in mind safety concerns.”

Tschetter says that while the sale did not attract as many young families as usual, they still raised about the same amount for MCC as in a usual year.

The committee was set to begin planning the 2022 sale in late January, taking into consideration some of the changes that resulted in positive feedback from attendees in 2021.

Gustafson-Zook says that while participation in the sales was down in 2021, “donations and sales were strong, and relief sales generated over $3 million in donations.”

“People seemed to be excited to get together again, and sales balanced the health and political differences of volunteers and participants by relying on people self-selecting their participation depending on their comfort levels,” says Gustafson-Zook.

For current information on the relief sales taking place in 2022, MCC offers a page on its website with dates and locations for all the sales planned, as well as links for those sales that have their own websites. Many of the sales also have Facebook pages that offer up-to-date information.­

Did you know? 

  • Most common relief sale meal: pancakes and sausage
  • Most common snack: fried raisin fritters, known as Christmas cookies, portzelky or New Year’s cookies
  • Top-selling quilt: Sold for $42,000 at the New Hamburg (Ontario) Mennonite Relief Sale in 2015
  • First quilt purchased at a virtual relief sale while on an airline flight: Oct. 2, 2021
  • Sale with men’s pie baking competition: South Dakota MCC Relief Sale
  • Sale where local ministers create a “Sleep through a sermon for free” pass to be auctioned: Nebraska Mennonite Relief Sale
  • Amount raised for My Coins Count in 2021: $398,679

Pandemic impact on relief sales

  • 2019 relief sale events in U.S. and Canada (pre-pandemic): 38
  • 2021 relief sale events: 27
  • Online relief sale auctions in 2019: 2
  • Online relief sale auctions in 2020: 18
  • Donations to MCC from relief sales in
    • 2019: $4,455,000
    • 2020: $2,665,000*
  • Projected donations to MCC from relief sales in 2021: $4,000,000
*Even though relief sale income was down in 2020 due to COVID-19, many generous people donated money directly to MCC instead.

 Info compiled by Les Gustafson-Zook, MCC Relief Sale Coordinator

 

Jessica Vix Allen
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has two children.

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