In year of masks, Goodfellows' need remains plain to see

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

There's no doll-dressing competition for the Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund this year, and the reason is as plain as the accessory on some of the little angels' faces.

A couple of Goodfellows dolls, one of which is wearing a mask.

They're wearing masks.

The pandemic has changed a fair number of things for the Goodfellows, a staple in Detroit since 1914. The annual Sales Day, with adults hawking newspapers on street corners as a fundraiser, will be virtual come Monday, and the customary Tribute Breakfast at the TCF Center was canceled.

What hasn't changed is that for 30,000 children in Detroit and five other communities, the box of clothes, books and toys from the Goodfellows might well be the preeminent blessing under the tree on Christmas morning.

"It's just a weird year," said executive director Sari Klok-Schneider — in one positive way, along with all the obvious troubling ones.

The good news, fiscally, was that with major retailers not stocking clothes and toys in the usual quantities, "we were able to get better deals from our suppliers than usual," Klok-Schneider said.

That means the tab for the holiday drive and a few other standard projects is only $1 million, compared to as much as $1.3 million in recent years. With only $517,376 so far in their Christmas Club account, however, the Goodfellows still have some work to do.

Goodfellows executive director Sari Klok-Schneider shows a book and some other items that are going into a box for a 7-year-old girl at the Goodfellows warehouse in Detroit on Nov. 23, 2020.

For decades, the doll-dressing contest has been a useful reminder of the need, as well as a vivid harbinger of the season.

Some 9,000 dolls are included in the boxes that go to kids ages 4-13 in Highland Park, Harper Woods, River Rouge, Hamtramck and Ecorse along with Detroit, where it's estimated that two-thirds of public school students receive them.

The dolls arrive from Santa's offshore workshop wearing only briefs, socks and shoes, meaning it's up to hundreds of volunteers to buy, sew or crochet outfits for them. A hundred or so of the most creative efforts are displayed in the window of the Lafayette Boulevard Comerica building, and a panel made up mostly of little girls selects the best of the brightest.

This year, the doll dressers had a new model to adorn. The Goodfellows are phasing out the 13-inch-tall dolls they've given for years and introducing a softer, 17-inch tall doll that fits American Girl patterns and will be used exclusively come 2022.

Thousands of boxes packed up with gifts for children this season. Goodfellows has continued to do their work this year despite the pandemic at the Goodfellows warehouse in Detroit on Nov. 23, 2020.

They'll be admired only by recipients this season, as COVID-19 precautions eliminated the judging and display. But in this divided land, Klok-Schneider said the doll dressers she's spoken with seem universally enthused about the change.

Retired nurse Kristin Phillips of Canton Township, who’s had a first place and multiple top 10s with the smaller dolls, dressed the older model this year because she had a backlog of wigs that fit them.

She and another past champion, Nadine Lonergan of Allen Park "get our husbands to pull the hair out, and then we put the wigs on," she explained.

But she’s enthused about the 17-inch dolls because the patterns for their clothes are more plentiful, and  "it’s a little easier when they’re bigger. It’s hard to make nice seams and be realistic with the others."

The dolls are already packed in white boxes stacked 6 feet high at the Goodfellows' warehouse, a process that starts in September and lasts six to eight weeks. Families of the girls and boys, typically identified to the Goodfellow Fund by schools or its long-time ally, the Detroit Police Department, will pick them up in December at three distribution centers.

Some items that are going into this box for a 7-year-old boy from the Goodfellows.  Goodfellows has continued to do their work this year despite the pandemic at the Goodfellows warehouse in Detroit on Nov. 23, 2020.

"It’s going to be very challenging," conceded Goodfellows president Daran Carey, to get what seem like endless pallets of gift boxes fully funded. "Hopefully, the sponsors and donors and past recipients will continue to donate."

Donations to the Virtual Sales Day on Monday can be made at Contributions are also cheerfully accepted at or Old Newsboys’ Goodfellow Fund of Detroit, P.O. Box 44444, Detroit, MI 48244-0444.

Carey, who spent 29½ years as a Detroit police officer, is among more than 250 Goodfellows volunteers. The organization’s minimal payroll consists of Klok-Schneider and one part-time assistant.

The son of a water department foreman and a schoolteacher, Carey said he was lucky to never qualify for a Goodfellows parcel, but he didn’t realize his good fortune. All he knew at 10 or 11 was that his friends received them, and he was envious.

He was so morose about being overlooked, Carey said, "that one of the officers who had an extra brought it to my house."

He's repaying the generosity decades later at a time that no one wants to see repeated.

"We just keep saying, 'Next year. Next year,'" Klok-Schneider said.

The need won't go away by then, unfortunately — but with luck, the unmasked dolls will be back on display.

Goodfellows executive director Sari Klok-Schneider shows a Goodfellows doll and some other items that are going into a box for a 7-year-old girl at the Goodfellows warehouse in Detroit on Nov. 23, 2020.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn