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With the holiday season upon us, charities in southeast Michigan are mobilizing volunteers for their busiest time of the year.

They are helping thousands of struggling families and senior citizens over the next several weeks and, in many cases, taking advantage of the public’s seasonal goodwill to help raise critical funding for the upcoming year. Despite the region’s improving economy, the overall demand for charitable services is about the same as last year, according to several charities.

Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, the largest, independent, expert charity evaluator in America, said the typical charity receives half of its donations between Thanksgiving and Dec. 31.

“People’s altruistic feelings come out as they evaluate their finances at the end of the year and realize they may have some extra money to donate,” Miniutti said. “Plus their desire to make the donations by the end of the year so they can claim them as tax deductions.”

The most successful fundraisers capitalize on the relationships they have built with donors over the course of the year and sometimes longer, said Ken Stern, author of “With Charity for All,” a 2013 book that examined the nation’s $1.5 trillion charity industry.

“The key is to get your name in front of donors early, so when you come out and request a donation the person is familiar with the organization and more apt to contribute,” he said.

The Salvation Army is one of the most recognizable charities in Metro Detroit, especially through the holiday season when its army of volunteers fans out across the region. Its annual Red Kettle Campaign launched in mid-November. Quicken Loans hosted a special “Metal in the Kettle” kickoff celebration for its employees last week at downtown Detroit’s Campus Martius.

This year, there will be more than 400 Red Kettle donation locations across Southeast Michigan manned by volunteers. Along with Quicken Loans, other corporations are hosting in-house fundraising events, according to Maj. Russ Sjogren, general secretary of the Salvation Army Eastern Michigan Division and Metro Detroit area commander.

The demand for food, shelter, counseling and other necessities continues to be great, he stressed, noting 40 percent of the people in the region still live at or below the poverty level.

The Red Kettle campaign is set to run through Christmas and could be extended another week to reach the charity’s goal of raising $8.7 million, Sjogren said. This target is the same as what was actually raised last year, which represented 25 percent of the Salvation Army East Division’s annual budget last year.

“It’s another aggressive, ambitious goal but we feel we can make it,” Sjogren said. “While it’s been harder to reach our goal over the past few years, I think we are starting to see things turn around. People are growing more comfortable with the future.”

The Salvation Army provides 3 million meals annually — 8,285 per day — to hungry people in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. It also provides shelter to 2,100 homeless people each night.

The Area Agency on Aging I-B, which covers six counties in Southeast Michigan excluding Wayne County, also is actively fundraising for its Meals on Wheels program that feeds homebound seniors.

Donations are especially critical this time of year, because state and federal grants pay for the organization’s traditional meal program, but not those distributed during the holiday season, said Jenny Jarvis, spokeswoman for the Area Agency on Aging I-B.

She said Meals on Wheels will deliver 6,650 holiday food packages to area seniors from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. The total cost is about $41,500.

Volunteers of America Michigan is best known for its vehicle donation program and Patrick Patterson, executive vice president, said the charity has received nearly 1,100 cars since the beginning of its fiscal year in July, an increase from last year. He expects a rush as the year draws to a close and people look for tax deductions.

Patterson said many of the vehicles are sold at auctions, with the money that is raised funding a variety of programs to support the homeless, children at risk, veterans and the disabled throughout the year.

“The holidays are always intense for us,” he said. “For the people we help, this time of year is not always full of joy given their struggles. It’s tough on the homeless especially.”

In addition to providing food, the seasonal rush at local charities includes gathering and wrapping hundreds of thousands of toys, and then distributing them to families in time for the holidays.

The need is especially acute for families of sick children, said Mickey Guisewite, founder of the Bottomless Toy Chest, headquartered in Birmingham.

Her son survived leukemia at age 12 after being treated for seven months at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. He is now in college.

Guisewite remembers meeting other families whose children also were fighting cancer. She said many parents were overwhelmed with their children’s illnesses and still trying to work, making the holidays tough. Presents were not always a priority.

“I walked by rooms of sick kids all by themselves with nothing to do,” she said. “Many were too sick to go to the hospital playrooms.”

Guisewite launched the Bottomless Toy Chest in 2008 as a simple, one-time toy drive. Today, the year-round charity counts on donations from individuals and businesses of all sizes to provide 30,000 toys to children in oncology units at eight hospitals in eastern Michigan. They hope to raise $50,000 this year.

The charity’s volunteer elf squads will begin visiting pediatric cancer units on Dec.3 to deliver toys to patients and their siblings.

“During their treatment, so much is out of their control,” Guiswite said about the young patients. “When our elves come they get to pick a toy. It sure is better than another needle poke or procedure.”

Joe St. Henry is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

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