The 39th annual Rotary telethon has raised $120,000 in pledges to go toward "people helping people" at the Highland County Society for Children and Adults.
Despite Highland County's economic difficulties, double-digit unemployment and personal financial hardships, area residents poured in dollars Wednesday night. Throughout the night, donors and organizers said supporting the society is a part of hometown pride, because 100 percent of the funds stay in Highland County.
Held at U.S. Bank in Hillsboro and at McClain High School in Greenfield, the event was once again hosted by Ernie Blankenship, along with the assistance of Highland County Sheriff Ron Ward, Judge Rocky Coss, and other Rotarians.
The event was viewed on the Hillsboro Public Access station, GCTV-3 in Greenfield and heard on Lite 97.5 WVNU, and 105.5 in Hillsboro.
Pledges of $5,000 from NCB and Hillsboro Rotary Club came in early in the telethon. The single largest donation was $15,000 from the Cassner Foundation.
Blankenship told The Highland County Press moments before the start of this year's fundraiser, "People need to be remembered, not for what they did, but for what they gave. We need people to give tonight."
As the evening drew to a close near 10 p.m. Wednesday, the telethon was approximately $300 shy from reaching the $120,000 mark. Blankenship said he'd like to see an even number.
Shouting to friend Don Fender, Blankenship said, "Don! What do you say you and me top off this last $300 with $150 each?"
Fender said he was in for making the final donation.
Gayle Coss, director of the Highland County Society for Children and Adults, said that she never fails to be overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of Highland County.
"I was so unsure of how much money we might raise," Coss said. "All week people had been asking me, 'How do you think you're going to do?' and I just wouldn't even comment because it's so hard for everybody right now. So I'm pleased. But I can be pretty sure that we'll spend it all."
During the 2010 telethon, the society raised $148,300. The first telethon, held in 1973, raised $1,715. The 2007 event raised an all-time high of $217,043.
"This community never ceases to amaze me," Coss said. "I keep thinking, 'Where does the money come from?' It's what the midwest means to me. It's people helping people and family and it's just awesome. It's really awesome."
The people who receive funds from the society are Highland County residents dealing with an illness or medical condition and find themselves short of funds for either gas or other expenses. The society helps fill in some of the gaps left in coverage by insurance, or Medicaid.
"A lot of people that we help say, 'Well can I ever pay you back?' And I usually say, 'Well, when there comes a time that you feel like you can, you can make a donation.' And some of those people are doing that now. There's really a bunch of good people in this county, and this is a tribute to them."
Ward said a lot of hard work goes into preparing for the telethon, and Rotarians take a sense of pride in making sure the event has a good turnout.
"It's the biggest project of the year for Rotary," Ward said. "A lot of work and time and effort goes into it by a lot of different people. It makes us feel good inside because we know it's local people helping local people."
Ward said he has known people who have received support from the society, including some employees with the sheriff's department, so he has seen first-hand how essential those services can be, and what a difference the society can make.
The sheriff's office made a donation Wednesday in memory of Lt. Randy Reffitt, who passed away in 2010 due to a heart condition.
"Sometimes it's a little bit of help with some equipment and things like that, and we've had some situations where it's been a lot of help," Ward said. "Gayle Coss does a wonderful job. It's a feel-good event. Especially with today's economy, things are tough, but you see people come up that maybe really don't have it to donate."
Referencing Blankenship ringing the bell during the large donations, Ward said that they make a big deal with the big checks that are written, but that each check and each dollar collected adds up and is important.
"The intent is the same," Ward said. "We realize that, whether it's $5, $500 or $5,000. We appreciate it, quite honestly, just the same."
Ward said that there are few years that the telethon has not surpassed the amount collected from the previous year. While there were no record-breaking donations in 2011, Ward said that everyone should remember that nearly $3 million has been collected in the nearly 40 years of the telethon.
"There are just some years you're going to not surpass the year before's total," Ward said. "I mean there were a couple of years we raised $200,000. And that was before the economy went south, so we feel fortunate. I feel very fortunate that we can come up here - and again, there's a lot more work that goes into it - but in a four-hour telethon, and raise $120,000 in a small community is just amazing to me."
Despite the struggles that local people may be going through, Ward said the community will always pull together.
"It's amazing that a small community like this can come together in a tough financial time, high unemployment, bad economy, businesses are going bad, but yet we raise this kind of money," Ward said. "That just says volumes about the people in this community."
Organizers say the society is the only one of its kind, that they know of, and that 100 percent of the funds raised stay in Highland County to help Highland County residents.
The poster child for the 2011 telethon is Emily Brook Davis, who suffers from familial dysautonomia, also known as Riley-Day syndrome, an auto-immune disorder. According to the National Dysautonomia Research Foundation, it affects the control of involuntary functions, and can include heart rate, body temperature, or – in Emily's case – breathing.
Coss said helping families like Emily's is what the society is all about.
The telethon is the only fundraiser the society has, and the funds raised during that one day fund the society for the entire year.
Siblings Helen Runyon and Benton Carver are this year's society advocates. Carver told The Highland County Press earlier this year that the society, "saved my life," Carver. I appreciate it. Nine years ago I couldn't get my heart medication. I was disabled, I'd had heart surgery and couldn't go back to work. I had no insurance. I was poor, and the people of Highland County saved my life. And I say thank you and God bless you. They paid for two months of my heart medication. I finally got insurance through the state. The state can only help you a certain length of time when you're disabled."
Carver said that he is trying to garner support for the agency that means so much to him.
"It is wonderful that such a small community is able to do something like this," he said. "I hope that even this year people will be able to give with a loving heart, because God will reward them. I would hate for Gayle to have to say to someone, 'No, we can't buy your child's insulin because we're out of money,' or "No, we can't help you pay for a hotel room so you can stay with your sick child.' Even a dollar will help. If 100 people give a dollar, it can make a difference. I am so happy for the society, and the work that they do. They really did save my life."