COVID-canceled 40th class reunion replaced by fund-raising challenge to support Maroon Giant seniors

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

The coronavirus dashed plans for a big summertime reunion by members of the Kalamazoo Central High School Class of 1980.

But it will not stop them from commemorating the 40th anniversary of their graduation from the area's largest high school. Or from trying to create something that benefits their alma mater, something for which they may be remembered.

"When a group started talking about our 40th reunion," says Alyson Parham Small, "I started posting things on Facebook about legacy and the fact that as we are getting up in age, do we want to spend all of our time and resources partying it away? Or do we want to establish some sort of legacy that will continue on even after we're gone?"

In place of a milestone get-together, the grads have established the Class of 1980 Pay It Forward Challenge -- an online fundraiser to pool money that will help members of future graduating classes with their needs.

Kalamazoo Central High School graduating class of 1980 is trying to establish their legacy by expanding opportunities for future KC graduates.Each member of the class, which included 425 students, is being challenged to donate $100 to create a monetary pool for the Class of 2021. They are also being challenged to make the same contribution next year and the year after that.

"The first three years, we know what we're going to do to increase it," Ollie says. Class members are being challenged to donate $100 per year for each of the next three years. After the first year, they are also challenging the classes of 1981, 1982, and subsequent years to join in.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for the Kalamazoo Central Class of 1980 Pay It Forward Challenge here.

"After our three years, we'll come back together and ask, 'Hey, do we want to stay involved? Does another class want to pick it up?'" Ollie says. "If so, they can determine what the money gets spent on."

Ollie says that although many people are struggling financially, the organizing committee expects to have at least $5,000 for next year's graduating class (assuming at least 50 contributors participate).

"We have classmates that are out of the country who have already started emailing, asking about where they could send their checks," says Small, a consultant who does organizational development and strategy development for nonprofit organizations, foundations, government agencies, and corporations in the Indianapolis area where she lives.

Small was co-president of her senior class and captain of the cheerleading squad. She gave the benediction at graduation. Ollie was a member of the Maroon Giants basketball team and one of the best-connected students in terms of his relationships during his school years and after.

Ollie also was the longtime program director at the Douglass Community Association in Kalamazoo and has counseled and coached young people in various roles, including work for Kalamazoo's Communities in Schools program and at Lakeside for Children in Kalamazoo.

Ollie and Small say a committee of the Class of 1980 will review and approve viable ideas for using the money. Those ideas, or projects, are to be generated by the senior class of the upcoming year. The Class of 1980 plans to enlist an administrator at Kalamazoo Central to work with student volunteers representing a cross-section of the upcoming graduating class to vet ideas and present them.

Eligible projects include:

• Help to pay outstanding school fees that create a barrier to graduation;

• Help to pay and cap and a gown rental expenses;

• Help to pay for college or trade school application fees;

• And help to cover yearbook expenses.

The money cannot be used to cover: class trips, school modification projects (such as painting murals), or projects focused on underclassmen in high school. None of the money is to be allocated directly to teachers or administrators. No money will be given directly to students. And approved allocations will be handled by the school. 

In upcoming years, it is hoped that funds will be raised and high school seniors can begin to brainstorm ideas by February of any year, Small says.

Ollie says the committee does not know how many members of the Class of 1980 are still in the area. But he says, "We sent out information for what was supposed to be our 40th reunion, but before the responses could come back -- and before we had to shut it down (in May) -- about 125 people had responded to participate in the reunion."

As it turns out, the event on the Aug. 4, 2020 date that 1980 graduates asked one another to save for a reunion banquet at Western Michigan University had to be canceled as the state banned large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Our Class of 1980 was a great class and it was a very cohesive class," Small says. "And even though we know people are struggling, pay it forward is just the idea of taking a little bit of what you have and sowing seeds into new leaders, new graduates that are coming up. And so the idea is that if we can plant this now, this is something that will continue down the line."

She says her class has to plant the seeds and hopefully other classes that came after theirs "will help fertilize the seeds, water the seeds, and what we will have is a self-generating fund to support (graduating) seniors."

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.