Knights' Tootsie Roll drive helps people with disabilities reach full potential

Gary Sorice, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 1802 in Wyandotte, offers Tootsie Rolls to drivers at the corner of Eureka and Fort streets on Palm Sunday weekend in 2016. The semiannual drive, held the weekend of Palm Sunday and Columbus Day, benefits a multitude of charities that help the mentally and physically disabled. (Mike Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)

So, who are these people with the yellow vests and Tootsie Rolls standing in front of retail stores and at intersections on Palm Sunday weekends?

They are members of the world’s largest Catholic Family Fraternal Service Organization. The organization was formed in New Haven, Conn., by Fr. Michael J. McGivney in 1882. The Knights of Columbus has grown from several members in one council to 15,900 councils and 1.9 million members throughout the United States, Canada, the Philippines, Mexico, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Guatemala, Guam, Saipan, Lithuania, Ukraine, and South Korea.

Membership is open to all Catholic males over the age of 18 through initiation in local councils and a new online program made to fit the busy lifestyle of Catholic families.

Involving Catholic families is the core of the Knights of Columbus. Our programs are designed to keep families together while serving their Church and communities and supporting various charities.

Back to those yellow vested people and the Tootsie Rolls. The drive, officially named the Campaign for Helping People with Intellectual Disabilities, is commonly referred to as the Tootsie Roll Drive because for every donation, each donor is offered a piece of candy by the Knight or family member present. It is one of the most popular and successful fundraisers conducted by Knights of Columbus local councils.

Councils’ participation in this campaign as well as many other fundraising endeavors last year helped raise $185 million, with volunteers contributing more than 75 million hours last year helping various causes.

Here in Michigan, through support of the Supreme Council, our State Council and the Tootsie Roll Company, our 64,000 members through more than 400 councils have the ability to participate in the campaign twice a year. Palm Sunday weekend is the most popular, but you may see members and their families out with Tootsie Rolls also around the Columbus Day holiday.

Last year, through the tireless efforts of our members and their families, the past two campaigns raised more than $1,258,000. Local councils distribute 80 percent of the funds raised to programs in their respective areas that work with people with learning disabilities. The other 20 percent is used by the State Council to support statewide programs such as Special Olympics of Michigan and other facilities such as the St. Louis Home and St. Francis Camp on the Lake.

So, when you see Knights in yellow vests that read “Helping People with Intellectual Disabilities,” you should smile. While these Knights and their families are collecting donations around town, they are also helping to recognize the dignity of every person.

We encourage all Catholic men to become involved with these great programs by joining our order. Go to the link, online program, or contact our State Membership Director James Kraus at [email protected]

Gary Merritt is state public relations director for the Michigan Knights of Columbus.