Spending three nights on a rooftop during a fundraiser helps a Bay City pastor gain new perspective

When she climbed up onto the roof of the Great Lakes Dream Center, Lead Pastor and Executive Director Mary Rathke planned to stay there until she raised $50,000 to support the center and its programs. What she got out of her “Rooftop Survivor” experience was so much more.

The Great Lakes Dream Center, located at 700 Lafayette Ave., not only hosts worship services on Sundays, but offers outreach ministry to the needy and homeless in Bay City. Rathke, who volunteers at the center, says she decided to spend a few days on the roof of the building as a way to raise money and bring awareness to the problems Michigan’s homeless face in the winter.

Throughout the year, the Dream Center provides “kits” to people in need. The kits include items not covered on Michigan’s Bridge Card, such as toilet paper, soap, and shampoo. People are eligible for two kits a week. The Center also connects people to other services in Bay City.

“In January and February, we hand out coats and blankets out on the sidewalk,” she says.

Several guests joined Rathke on the rooftop including Aland Stands, center, from River Jordan, and Brandon Murphy, right, from Bridge the Gap.Doing that gives her the opportunity to talk to people in need. Over time, she’s learned that not only are people sleeping outdoors, but even those with homes “are keeping their heat really low, like at 50 degrees or 55 because they can’t afford the heating bills; so, we have children that are sleeping on couches with piles of blankets all winter.”

Rathke wanted to help and took inspiration from the late Terry Watson, a police officer who put on different stunts every year to attract attention and raise money for the Bay City Fireworks Festival.

“I wanted to bring awareness of homelessness in Michigan in the wintertime and just the heat deprivation that a lot of families go through,” and at the same time raise extra funds for the Dream Center.

During Rooftop Survivor, Rathke says she saw firsthand what people experience.

“Saturday morning, early, a young man came up to me and said ‘I’m looking for Mary. I was told to come find you. I’ve been homeless and I’ve been sleeping at the park for the last three nights, and I ran into some people and they told me to come find you.’ ”

Rathke explained that she couldn’t help him at that moment, but asked him to come back when the Center was open.

“Then, all of the sudden, he realized I was up on the roof and I couldn’t get down. He looks up and says ‘What are you doing up there?’ and I said, ‘I’m experiencing homelessness. I’ve been sleeping up here the last two nights.’ His face lit up, and he was like – ‘So you know how cold it was last night.’ And at that moment, it hit me that I have this new perspective, this new compassion.”

Mary Rathke spent three nights on a rooftop in November to raise money and awareness for the Great Lakes Dream Center. She gained new perspective for herself.When she climbed onto the roof at 10 a.m. Nov. 11, Rathke only had what the Center would donate to anyone in need ­– a couch, blankets, a coat, and emergency food. The only shelter she had was an outhouse her husband, Todd Rathke, built out of a portable toilet and a tarp. When she reached the ground again on Nov. 14, she had a whole different view.

“I really felt like this was an opportunity from God to experience exactly what people are going through and to be able to share that with others. They said things like ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t be out there without a tent.’ But how many people are out there without a tent? You have compassion for me because I’m your friend, and the dentist’s wife, and the pastor, but what about the people that are out here experiencing it all the time?”

She planned to stay on the roof until she raised $50,000. While there, she  educated others about the Center’s mission.

“I invited local business leaders to come up and have lunch with me and talk about what their nonprofits do for the community,” she says. “I really wanted to show that at the Dream Center that when we raise money it’s not just for us, it’s because we have all these other nonprofits that partner with us.”

While on the roof, she dined with and interviewed Douglas Szczepanski, of Miracle Soldier, Officer Brandon Murphy with Bridge the Gap, Aland Stamps from River Jordan, and Bay City Mayor Kathleen Newsham. She also had a visit from Terry Watson’s widow, Peggy, and their son, Richard.

“It was all done on the roof,” she says. “It was very cold. I had dinner with my family in the rain, and I had snow, but I didn’t come down the whole time.”

While her Rooftop Survivor experience is over, Rathke says her compassion for people continues to grow.

Recently, Rathke says she was volunteering at the center when someone called who couldn’t get into the shelter.

“As soon as I got done volunteering, I spent three hours driving all over Bay City looking under all the bridges for this woman. I thought, if I hadn’t just spent three nights sleeping outside, I may have just been like ‘Well, we tried,’ but now that I’ve had this experience, it just totally changes your perspective.”

During the three-day event, Rathke says the Center raised more than $56,000, which will go into the general fund. She says the money will go for items such as car seats and other necessities. It also will keep the Dream Center open. In addition to helping the homeless, the Center also acts as a community center hosting Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, funerals, and children’s grief support groups.

The Great Lakes Dream Center accepts donations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and by appointment. For more information or to make a donation, visit the website https://greatlakesdreamcenter.org/ or call (989) 270-7575.