In the News

Magic Johnson, volunteers aid Detroit’s needy

by: Ursula Watson

Originally Posted on: Detroit News at 6:46 a.m. EST November 23, 2014

Feed the Children 1 | Bektrom

(Photo: Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Feed the Children 2 | Bektrom

(Photo: Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Feed the Children 3 | Bektrom

(Photo: Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

— Basketball legend EarvinMagic” Johnson and more than 100 volunteers braved the cold and rain on Saturday to help the needy during the holiday season.

The former Michigan State Spartan and Los Angeles Lakers point-guard’s foundation collaborated with Feed the Children and corporate partners to lend a hand to more than 2,000 Detroit-area families.

Before Johnson and his wife, Cookie, bundled up to distribute items in the parking lot of Second Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Lansing native spoke inside the church’s auditorium.

“These are things that we love to do,” said Johnson. “We take great pride in giving back to the community. My life is dedicated to urban America. That’s all I want to do.”

He went on to credit his parents, who were sitting on stage, making him the man that he is.

“My father gave me the work ethic, gave me great common sense and pushed us toward education,” he said. “And my mom, I am just like her. I want to save the world.”

In an assembly-like fashion sure to make Henry Ford smile, Johnson and volunteers formed lines in the expansive church parking lot, packing backseats and trunks of vehicles with non-perishable food items, coats and turkeys with all of the trimmings for a holiday meal.

“Hunger is a big problem in our city,” said Bishop Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer, located just off I-75 and McNichols on Dequindre. “You have the working poor, working part-time jobs with no benefits. There are those working two to three part-time jobs with no benefits and having to make decisions between medicine or food; rent or food; the water bill or food.”

Larry Clay was one of the pre-selected recipients who received items Saturday.

As soon as Clay and his family drove up, volunteers got down to business packing his vehicle with a turkey, a bag of potatoes, soft drinks and more.

Clay and his family screamed with delight when they realized Johnson was one of the volunteers.

“He shook my hand and everything,” said Clay.

The McCaskill family was so excited that they parked their car after getting their items and took pictures with the basketball icon and his wife, who they described as warm and down-to-earth.

“I am sure he had plenty of other things that he could have been doing,” said Michelle McCaskill, who took a selfie with Johnson. “It is appreciated.”

“He is a true humanitarian,” said Synobia McCaskill.

Cookie Johnson grew up in Detroit and graduated from Chadsey High School, where she was a cheerleader. She said she even saw former classmates at Saturday’s event. Many in her hometown need help and she was happy to lend her support she said.

“This is close to home. I grew up here. These are people I grew up with,” said Cookie Johnson. “It makes you feel good to see people getting help. People are reaching out and giving back.”

Cookie lauded Vann, for his efforts and that of the volunteers.

Vann said the partnership with Feed the Children began more than seven years ago. Since then more than 30,000 families have been helped, he said.

Erin Engelke, spokesman for Feed the Children, said more than $700,000 worth of food, toys and personal care items were donated for Saturdays event.

Mattel donated toys; Soles4Souls gave coats; turkeys were thanks to Meijer’s and Coca-Cola donate all the trimmings for a Thanksgiving meal. Sam’s Club, Nestle, Grocery Outlet, Bektrom Foods Inc. and Starkist also donated items as well.

Children in poverty

Feed the Children distributed over $344 million in food, essentials, educational supplies, and medicine to over 10 million individuals in the United States and 18 other countries in fiscal year 2013 with the help of partners, donors, and communities.

“We look at the U.S. Census in terms of the communities that have a high percentage of individuals living at or below the poverty line,” said Engelke. “More than 38 percent of families in Detroit live at or below the poverty. We bring Feed the Children trucks and provide aide to the Detroit community at least twice a year.”

The Department of Technology, Management and Budget reported this month the state’s unemployment rate was 7 percent. But in Detroit the rate is 23 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We have nearly 200,000 people in Detroit that are unemployed,” said Vann. That’s almost a third of our population.”

And for those who have a job, life can still be a struggle, said Vann where people are forced to choose between food and other necessities.

Some of the hardest hit by unemployment are children.

In 2013, the population under age 18 made up 25 percent of the total population in the city according to nonprofit Data Driven Detroit. Its 2012 report, State of the Detroit Child, it found a 65 percent increase in child poverty since 1999.

Erica Raleigh, of Data Driven Detroit, said Detroit child poverty rates for 2012 and 2013, were 59.4 percent and 58.6 percent, respectively.

Gleaners Food Bank distributed enough food to food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters to provide just under 100,000 meals per day, everyday throughout the year said Anne Schenk, spokeswoman.

“A majority of the partner agencies we work with are in Wayne County and the Detroit area,” said Schenk. “We serve everywhere from the Toledo/Michigan border, up to north Oakland County, as far west as Livingston and in Macomb county, which has in particular, seen a rise in poverty since the recession.”

Tigers vs. Dodgers?

Vann said a celebrity like Johnson brings much need attention to the plight of those in need.

“We are ecstatic to have him on board with this effort because not only does he bring exposure to what we are doing and have done but what he really brings is his heart as well,” said Vann. “He is a genuine person. And he brings along with his heart the influence of his foundation and resources that help to support this effort.”

Johnson is also a man with a great sense of humor and hometown pride.

While many would think Johnson has everything, there is one thing on his bucket list.

“Detroit Tigers versus the L.A. Dodgers for the World Series,” said Johnson, who is an owner of the Dodgers. “If we could pull that off, one time, that would be great for me.”

UWatson@detroitnews.com

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