‘Volunteers are waiting ...’
COVID Inspires a Success for the Newman Center
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
December 24, 2020
It only enhanced the experience when the pastor almost set his hair on fire.
Accidentally, of course.
When COVID-19 derailed its 60th annual fundraising dinner, the Newman Catholic Student Center in DeKalb settled on an “old-school” idea for its anniversary: a telethon.
On Dec. 5, this center located a few steps north of the Northern Illinois University campus debuted its first “LIVE Telethon,” broadcasting it on YouTube, on two Facebook pages and on Instagram.
Students pre-recorded demonstrations of their talents and gave heartfelt testimonies of what the Newman Center means to them. 
Four diocesan priests who are Newman Center alumni — Msgr. Glenn Nelson, Msgr . Stephen Knox, Father Matthew McMorrow and Father Paul White — also shared what the Newman Center meant to them and to their vocations. 
Live events included bidding on special items and a cooking demonstration with Newman pastor, Father Kyle Manno.
In keeping with the Newman Center’s 60th anniversary, the theme was a 1960s vibe and the original goal was set at $60,000. But before the telethon got started, $42,000 already had been pledged, Father Manno says, so the goal was quickly boosted to $80,000.
“For three hours, it was non-stop,” with 12 full and part-time staffers answering phones, he says. 
Originally, the 12 had planned to imitate television telethons and answer those calls right behind the action. With the virus mitigations, they decided to answer the phones from their offices around the building. 
However, they still were on stage in spirit — and in cardboard, along with their friend, Pope Francis — as they answered the 97 calls and pledges received during the event.
Many viewers printed out recipes provided ahead of time, shopped for the ingredients and cooked along as Father Manno made homemade pasta with homemade vodka sauce.  
“At one point I almost caught my hair on fire” because of the vodka, he admits. “I forgot to lower the heat. It was very funny.”
About 45 minutes after dinner was served, Father Manno led viewers in making a Christmas tree-shaped dessert of corn flakes and marshmallows.
Throughout the event, several mini-fundraisers were featured. Nine “Dinner with the Priests” brought in $1,000 each — to be redeemed when people can gather. 
Father Robert Gonnella offered to detail cars, and that future service brought in three $500 pledges.
An incentive for people to pledge came with a donation of a $1,000 Amazon gift card. For every $25 pledged, a person was given a ticket for the drawing for that first prize. The second place prize was a $500 gift card for Fatty’s, a DeKalb restaurant.
A downloadable bingo card had viewers watching the telethon for particular happenings such as the moment when a bust of Cardinal John Newman’s face appeared.
And one unusual talent got youngsters involved. “Tons of kids pledged a penny per juggle,” Father Manno says of Father Gonnella’s rare ability to juggle with his feet. 
“He did over 200 juggles, (and) some kids brought up $2.42 at Mass,” Father Manno says.
Then a parishioner called in, asking for another auction item to be made available: the spoon that was partly destroyed when Father Manno started the vodka fire.
That parishioner started the bidding and he “paid $600 for the spoon!” Father Manno says. “I asked the guy the next day, ‘Why?’ ”
The man told him that COVID had been a time that was so stressful and difficult, “and the telethon was so joyful and just brought so much life into this difficult time” and he wanted the spoon to remember it, Father Manno says. “He said he was going to mount it above his stove forever.”
In normal years, the annual Newman dinner gathers about 150 people together for a nice evening. The telethon recorded close to 5,000 views, Father Manno says.
Those viewers were not just local, he adds. “One guy in the comment section said, ‘Hey, I’m watching from Brazil!’ It was a proud thing — (we were) getting to preach the Good News even in Brazil.”
The telethon, he says, “really showcased how this is a Newman Center (with) students singing, dancing and giving testimony. With them being present, (it) really showed the vibrancy of the Newman Center.  
“Many people called to say they weren’t planning to watch the entire three hours, but it was so life giving, they kept watching.
“And the next day it was such a united feeling at church.”
The new event was a monetary success as well. As of Dec. 21, $80,371.82 had been pledged — exceeding the revised goal. The money will be used for the center’s many campus ministry events.
And “oh yes,” Father Manno says, “it will be a regular thing every year.”
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