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Beline Obeid

A century of providing presents

Late television personality Sonny Elliot and Pete Waldmeir of Grosse Pointe Woods. Photo courtesy Goodfellows

November 28, 2013
Through the Depression, recessions and a world war, the Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund of Detroit has lived up to its motto: "No kiddie without a Christmas."

With a $1.2 million budget to provide 35,000 Christmas packages to children ages 4 to 13 in Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, River Rouge and Harper Woods, the Detroit Goodfellows are in the 100th year of raising funds. The money collected this year buys warm clothing, underwear, books, candy, dolls and toys for the 2014 season. The 2013 bills have been paid. When the Goodfellows stand on the street corners selling papers Dec. 2, they are planning Christmas presents for 2014's packages.

"The need has gone up and down," said Pete Waldmeir, past president, Grosse Pointe Woods resident and an early recipient of a holiday package.

"Mom raised three kids by herself. My grandfather, Peter Nielsen, was a cop and he got us on the list with the Goodfellows. The cops used to deliver packages," he said.

Now parents must come to a delivery site to pick up the packages.

The Detroit charity has 235 members who raise funds through newspaper sales, direct mail solicitation and a breakfast.

"The breakfast has been tremendously successful. It's a wellspring of good will," Waldmeir said.

An early morning breakfast is staged in the fall and each year honors a philanthropic member of the community. Past recipients include Dick Purtan, A. Alfred Taubman and Peter Karmanos Jr.

To spread the news and good will, the Goodfellows participate in the annual Thanksgiving Day parade and hosts its own parade. The 2013 Goodfellows parade is at 10 a.m. Monday, Dec. 2, beginning at the Guardian Building proceeding around Campus Martius and concluding at the Penobscot Building where members sing Christmas carols, said Sari Schneider, executive director. Members, including Goodfellows president Frank Brady, and Detroit police and fire fighters sell newspapers on various corners from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. that day.

Funds raised buy the goods in the package, including 11,000 dolls.

"Every girl up to the age of 8 gets a doll. Every doll is hand dressed," Brady said.

In fact, the dolls create quite a competition among those who create the outfits. And there are always more who want to dress the number of dolls.

Of the thousands of dolls dressed to the nines, five are selected to be the best dressed. Those who created the winning outfits reap only recognition and all the dolls are displayed in Compuware's world headquarters in Detroit until it's time to be packaged in late October and early November to go to some lucky little girl.

According to Brady, great-nephew of the founder James Brady, parents fill out an application form to become eligible for the Christmas package. When they pick up the package, parents must present proof of the child's age.

"They fill out an application," Brady explained. "That goes into a database and carries over year to year. They have to provide proof of need. We ask for ages and gender (of the children). We package by gender and age."

"Seventy percent of our families are repeat until they grow out (of the program)," Waldmeir added.

Brady's great-uncle founded the Goodfellows in 1914. The elder Brady was Detroit's water commissioner and head of Detroit's Internal Revenue Service.

"He called his friends he sold papers with as a young man (for donations)," Brady said. Presents were purchased with their contributions and donations and distributed by police officers to those children who would otherwise have gone without a holiday gift.

"The police department have been partners (of ours) for years," he said. "We haven't missed a year, through wars and Depression. This is our 100th campaign. There has been a pretty steady need."

In the beginning, children were identified through schools' attendance officers, Waldmeir said. However, with the reduction in staff and the rise in charter schools, families are identified through police and churches.

Goodfellows has expanded its assistance beyond holiday giving. It provides free children's shoes, a free dental program through the University of Detroit Mercy, sends children from Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park to summer day camp and offers two students scholarships to attend Wayne State University's journalism school.

"First it was Hudson's," Waldmeir said about the shoe program, "then Sherman's and Mr. Alan's now. The child must come in to buy the shoes."

While the Goodfellows remain true to its original purpose of providing gifts, the members also want these children to get in the habit of going outside — hence the camperships — and in the habit of brushing their teeth — hence the free dental program and tooth brush and toothpaste in the holiday packages.

With a troop of volunteers to raise the funds to keep the organization paying its bills year round, there is a single paid position, that of the executive director.

"This is a charity without overhead," Brady said. "We have one full- time person. We don't ask much of our members, they do a letter writing campaign once a year. Every member buys their own stamps, envelopes and stationery, plus the thank yous. They can do small stuff plus the big breakfast.

"We've touched close to two million children. The reason why we do it is so kids will have a holiday gift and also when they grow they remember someone remembered them."

To emphasize his point, Brady said every year he gets donations from people he doesn't even know so 35,000 children will find hope and joy in a box.

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