Reader contributions to Reindeer Gang campaign break record

Johnny Higdon and Tony Jones will soon be smiling through new teeth.

Faye Thomas will be able to get her washer and dryer, and Tabitha Whitehead already has her new refrigerator.

Cornelius “Jazzy Red” Bridges and Lalesha West will have some funds to help with their living accommodations, and Margaret Campbell will get help with her rent and utility bills.

The children of Heather Thomas and Samantha Jeffers, and the great-grandchildren of Pauline Butler, will have presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

Apparently nobody told The Reindeer Gang there was rough sledding ahead during this unstable economic climate.

The Reindeer Gang, a Telegraph tradition formerly known as Macon Miracles, is a community effort to reach out to families and individuals in need during the holiday season.

As of Friday, readers had responded with financial contributions that totaled a record $30,551, with donations still coming in.

There were a total of 370 donors, half of whom asked to remain anonymous.

The contributions, combined with additional funding, pushed the total amount to $56,701.

“The response to our stories about people in our community who need a little help has been phenomenal,’’ said Sherrie Marshall, executive editor of The Telegraph. “It is all the more remarkable given the economic climate, when many people have their own added financial worries and burdens. It says a lot about Middle Georgians that they would give so generously, that they would be willing at this special time of the year to share what they had with those less fortunate.’’

Starting this week, the 14 individuals and families featured in The Reindeer Gang stories between Nov. 28-Dec. 7 will receive checks. Those funds will be administered through the social service agencies and churches that sponsored them.

Other readers offered to help these individuals and families with donations of toys, bicycles, furniture, appliances, clothes and home repair.

One story that particularly resonated with readers was that of Higdon, the former spirit director at Willingham and Southwest high schools.

Higdon was once a promising athlete at Willingham, which later became Southwest. When he was 15, he fell from a tree while retrieving a kite for his brother. The accident left him physically and mentally impaired, but he overcame those challenges and became an inspiration to thousands of high school sports fans in Macon and Middle Georgia.

Higdon, 61, is now a resident at North Macon Health Care Facility on Anthony Road. When readers found out Higdon had suffered two strokes in the past five years and was in dire need of dental work, they responded in a big way. Some of the preliminary dental work has already started, with the remainder to come after the holidays.

A number of Willingham and Southwest alumni rallied behind Higdon. A reunion committee from Southwest is using leftover funds from a reunion this past summer and will have a Christmas party for Higdon on Monday.

“The response has been overwhelming,’’ said his sister, Millie Arnold. “And it hasn’t just been people helping out financially. It is people coming by to see Johnny that haven’t seen him in years. That means so much to us.’’

All donations were made through the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, which administered the contributions through the local charities.

Remaining contributions in the general fund not designated for an individual or family will be distributed to selected nonprofit agencies and church outreach programs. Those agencies and churches are directed to use the money to help other families with needs this holiday season.

“The Community Foundation of Central Georgia is so grateful for the generous gifts of the citizens of Middle Georgia for an amazing outpouring of support,’’ said Julia Wood, the director of donor services.

“Given the current economic situation, you would expect charitable giving to be down compared to previous years. This is a powerful example of counter-cyclical philanthropy — giving more when the needs are the greatest.

“This unprecedented level of giving will enable these families to focus on the spirit of the season.”