TRAVERSE CITY — For the last two decades, Santa Claus has flown in on a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter and stepped off to hundreds of people cheering for the jolly ol’ man with a great, big beard and a red velvet suit.
In those 20-plus years, children lined up at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City for the chance to sit on St. Nicholas’ lap, looking up at him with beaming smiles of excitement.
Santa always listened closely, not wanting to miss a single request.
“This is the real Santa,” said Mike Kent, co-organizer of the event and associate director of the Northwest Michigan Marine Toys For Tots.
But Kris Kringle won’t be visiting the Great Wolf Lodge this year, and Toys for Tots will look a lot different.
A global pandemic has put health and safety above all else and rising cases of COVID-19 in northern Michigan will put many traditions on hold until next year.
“We’ve got to change everything,” Kent said. “If we felt that we were responsible for a person getting sick or a person dying because of an event we had, it obviously wouldn’t be worth that.”
The kickoff event will split into three locations — Great Wolf, Bill Marsh Automotive and Fox Motors — and run from noon-2 p.m. Donors will have a designated spot to drive up and drop off toys to volunteers wearing masks with sanitizer and disinfectant on hand.
Kent is hoping to get more monetary donations this year, which will allow online ordering of toys in bulk that can be directly delivered to the agencies. Kent said that is an effort to have fewer people handling the toys.
Toys for Tots volunteers deliver 20,000 toys to 7,000 children annually, Kent said.
The need will be greater this year. That is not a guess on Kent’s part, it is already a reality.
“We’ve never missed our goal,” he said. “It’s going to be tight. It’s going to be tough. But we’re going into it confidently.”
Toys For Toys isn’t the only program in the area working to make sure children in need have presents under the tree come Christmas morning. Some are feeling the pinch of the pandemic more than others.
Paper Angels, run by Child and Family Services in Traverse City, allows volunteers to accept wish lists from a child or family and then go shopping for the gifts requested.
The program is in its 15th year, but its 2020 operation will run different than the previous 14. Melissa Ryba, the marketing and development specialist for CFS, said those changes unfortunately include cutting back on the number of lists that will be filled by nearly half.
Paper Angels filled more than 1,000 lists in 2019.
The cutback is disappointing but necessary for health and safety, Ryba said. She also expects monetary donations to decrease because the front office is closed to the public.
“Seeing the people coming in and dropping off presents, you really get the spirit of Christmas,” she said. It’s definitely a much colder experience this year, but we can’t cancel Christmas for our kids.”
The donation drive will be three days — 3-6 p.m. on Dec. 4 and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Dec. 5-6 — and take place at the CFS office on Veterans Drive. Ryba said donors can make an appointment to drop off donations if they cannot attend.
People can still donate to the program’s Angel Fund, which helps families and children throughout the year. Ryba said that is a great way to give back if people don’t want to risk going shopping.
The Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle campaign started this week. Although there are as many kettles this year as last, the donations collected in them are expected to be down by about 50 percent from the $200,000 that was collected locally last year, said Lt. Matt Winters.
Bell-ringers may be in short supply because of the pandemic, Winters said. At the same time there will be less foot traffic at businesses where kettles are located and more people shopping online.
Add to that a national coin shortage and the fact that people just don’t carry cash anymore, Winters said.
The Salvation Army is coming up with new ways to collect donations, such as the virtual red kettle that was rolled out last year that lets people donate online. People can also put a red kettle on their Facebook page to become a virtual bell-ringer, Winters said.
The organization still plans to serve its annual Thanksgiving dinner, though it will largely be served to go.
Seating will be limited to 50 people and they are asking that those seats be saved for people who need to come in out of the cold, said Ruth Blick, director of community resource development.
The dinner normally serves 350 people and will do so again this year, Blick said.
Mary Stanton, executive director of Leelanau Christian Neighbors, said donations coming into the organization are strong.
“People have continued to be pretty generous with us,” Stanton said.
Everybody has their favorite restaurants and businesses, and not seeing the employees they have come to know may be spurring people to give more, she said.
Stanton said the numbers of people coming to the food pantry are down a little compared to pre-COVID. What concerns Stanton is that more seniors are visiting the pantry and needing help paying bills through the LCN financial assistance program.
“Their social security check just isn’t stretching as far as it used to,” she said.
A lot of families also need help with baby formula, which is expensive, and other baby supplies, Stanton said.
Cathy O’Connor is the president of Step Up Northern Michigan, a nonprofit that focuses on serving at-risk youth in the region. She is also a serving member of the Northwest Food Coalition.
Now, more than ever, is a vital time for the food coalition to reach as many people as possible. For them to do that, they’re going to need help, O’Connor said.
O’Connor knows there is good in the community. The coalition has had nearly $200,000 pledged to provide food relief in northern Michigan.
“It’s just nice to hear some news that there are good people around,” she said. “We are trying to do our best to take care of our own.”
Goodwill Northern Michigan’s focus is on just that — showing care to those in dire need of it.
The program’s dedication to tackling homelessness and food insecurity has never been more important than now, said Deb Lake, marketing director.
Safely housing area residents without indoor shelter during the pandemic has proven a challenge, she said, given that keeping people physically distanced is key to preventing disease transmission.
“This year, because of COVID, we have more expenses than we normally do,” Lake said.
Resale store sales help financially support the nonprofit’s overhead costs and programs, but she said 30 percent of the bills are paid through donations.
That’s why the organization will be mailing out thank-you notes to donors and asking for continued support, Lake said.
Goodwill annually hosts a benefit event called Empty Bowls in November to raise funds for its food rescue program. Since in-person gatherings are discouraged during the pandemic, Lake said an online auction will instead be scheduled.
Nonprofits are also hurting for volunteers — and the Acme Christian Thrift Store in Williamsburg is no exception. Board member and food pantry coordinator Carol Hockin said most who help out there are 70 years old or older, placing them in a high-risk category for the illness.
Hockin said some volunteers won’t come back because of it. Volunteers must wear masks, try to maintain social distancing and go through a checklist, including having their temperature checked, Hockin said. Cashiers also work behind shields.
Fewer volunteers, combined with an increased demand at the food pantry, has made operations more difficult. Hockin is working on Thanksgiving basket distribution and said she’s heard from people who haven’t called in a while asking about it — and if it’ll be safe.
“We’re going to try a drive-through for this and we’ll just see how it works,” she said.
Grace Episcopal Church’s food pantry in Traverse City also is seeing an uptick following lower demand in the spring and summer, said Rev. Jim Perra, church rector. He suspects demand will keep rising through the winter as people use up their resources.
Both Perra and Hockin said the pandemic put a dent in fundraising, and outreach services to people facing homelessness have been the most affected, Perra said. The Jubilee House, Grace Episcopal Church’s daytime drop-in spot for people to shower, do laundry or just relax is closed because it was too risky during a pandemic.
Instead, the church is working with Safe Harbor on a four-hour day shelter in the mornings. The shelter made big changes to protect guests, including setting up a 40-by-60-foot heated tent as a socializing area, complete with TV and wireless internet.
Overnight guests must answer a series of questions at check-in, and anybody who may be sick or exposed will be quarantined elsewhere. Traverse Health Clinic is also providing rapid testing for the novel coronavirus, along with in-person and virtual consultations.
Churches around Traverse City that serve daytime meals have made changes as well, including Central United Methodist Church. Jane Lippert, the church’s outreach coordinator, said the church will start serving its breakfast five days a week at Safe Harbor, having stopped over the summer.
“We keep on talking amongst each other, because when winter comes, it’s just going to be inhumane to send people off into the snow with their meals, so we’re trying to figure something out but we haven’t been able to do that yet,” Lippert said.