Members of local charitable groups and the community opened their hearts, wallets and laptops to raise money and collect supplies for those seeking an extra hand during the coronavirus pandemic.

Using virtual platforms, groups came together to introduce a new way of raising money for local medical facilities, children and families in need, scholarships and a variety of other programs. These platforms expanded the reach of nonprofits and allowed for more participants to get involved, which brought in more donations.

Even though the first quarter of 2020 shows a 6% decrease from that in 2019, donations under $250 were up by 6% over the course of the year, according to a report from the Growth in Giving Initiative's Fundraising Effectiveness Project. As this impact could be seen across all types and sizes of nonprofit organizations, despite the heroic services by those who spearheaded them, most special events and other fundraising events were canceled throughout the year. But even with events canceled, Villages residents weren't about to let the pandemic stop their initiative of helping others.

Last year, The Villages Blues Society made donations to the Blues Foundation's Handy Artists Relief Trust (HART) Fund, which helps musicians and their families who needed financial assistance. The Villages Blues Society founders Mark and Marcia Adams, said that the funding was more important than ever.

"All the venues where the artists play were shut down," said Mark, of the Village Palo Alto. "So the musicians who were coming to play for us didn't have a source of income."
Over the course of the year, the group held several outdoor concerts at limited capacity to allow for social distancing.

Even though some of the groups' own events were canceled, the group gave members an option to help out if they wanted.

"We couldn't take care of the whole world, but we wanted to focus on a specific area," Marcia said.

Members interested in helping out made donations on the club's website.

The Lake Sumter Lions did something similar.

During a time when recreation centers weren't open to residents, the Lake Sumter Lions made a decision to host a virtual 5K event. The monies raised during the event went toward scholarships and other programs the Lions run.

"It was a very successful event," said club member Jaci Newmark, of the Village Santiago. "We wanted to come up with a way where residents could get up off the couch and be active while helping us. All they had to do was register online, send in their fees and complete the event. Afterwards, they were required to share their time and a selfie."

Newmark said the event brought in more people than anticipated. Members hope to make it an annual event.

The UF Health The Villages Hospital Auxiliary Foundation also modified its major fundraiser, the Hearts for Our Hospital Gala, to a virtual event, which brought the gala into the homes of anyone interested.

"Now more than ever is the best time to invest and get involved in health care philanthropy," said Cathy Reardon, senior development associate for the foundation in a former interview. "The hospital and our health care workers need the community as much as the community needs the hospital."

The 15th annual Gala included presentations from specialists from UF Health and local physicians on relevant topics including COVID-19, while also raising money to be split between the Auxiliary Foundation and the Villages Homeowners Advocates. The event generated around $200,000 and brought the event to more than 100,000 households, according to Dick Campbell, co-chair for the gala.

"It was a wonderful event that brought a lot of people together," he said. "We are thrilled that although we didn't raise as much as we have in the past, that it is still a large number and people were able to have fun."

Senior writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.