Touchstone Theatre, established in 1981, is a local theater located on 321 East Fourth St. The not-for-profit theater has seen a cut in their typical revenue stream due to the pandemic. (Liz Cornell/B&W photo)

Lehigh 5K fundraiser benefits local businesses

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Five kilometers, $5, five friends. 

When Lehigh shifted to online learning and stay-at-home orders went into effect in March due to COVID-19, many local businesses, restaurants, salons and service providers had to close or significantly limit their in-person activity. Many of these local businesses have been a pillar of the Bethlehem community for years and are now struggling to make a profit.

Realizing the Lehigh community’s desire to help, the Panhellenic Council joined the Interfraternity Council and the Cultural Greek Council and started a virtual 5K fundraiser. The rules of the event were to run five kilometers, donate $5 to @Run5forSouthside and nominate and tag five people on social media to do the same. 

Each of the three Greek councils nominated their chapters, and each individual chapter nominated five members. From there, word of the fundraiser began to spread. Between May 18 and June 1, $3,777.70 was raised and 689 people participated. 

Panhellenic President Julia Voelzke, ‘21, said about 90 to 95 percent of the participants were current students, but noted the involvement and donations from alumni as the weeks went on. 

“Since we didn’t get to have that many philanthropy events in the second half of the school year, we thought it was a great opportunity to get everyone involved with the community,” Voelzke said. “It was a very different semester than everyone was used to.” 

The proceeds were donated to the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce COVID-19 Relief Fund  that has helped support 320 small business owners in Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Northampton and Warren (NJ) counties. The funds have helped business owners pay rents, make payroll or pay other operating expenses. 

Harry Ernest, ‘22, said he was nominated by one of his friends on an Instagram story and felt inclined to participate because it was for a good cause. He said the use of social media helped expand the reach of the fundraiser. 

Lorie Reinert, executive director of the Chamber’s foundation, said the Chamber has provided over $350,000 to these small businesses and, for some, it’s been the only help they’ve received so far. There was a time when the businesses weren’t able to get funding from the government, Reinert said. 

She said the funds from the 5K fundraiser were a big percentage of the money that the Chamber has received so far. 

Harry Ernst, ’22, was tagged in Lehigh’s “Run 5 for Southside” fundraiser. Each participant donates $5 to help support local Bethlehem businesses during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Harry Ernst)

“They’ve all been impacted in some way,” Reinert said. “They didn’t close on their own free will. Some were required to follow CDC guidelines and didn’t have a choice but to close their doors. Some of them were able to provide takeout and others weren’t able to.” 

Reinert said a review committee of donors and board members will make final decisions about how the money will be evenly distributed among the South Bethlehem businesses. 

The businesses that have received funding from the funds include Deja Brew, Funhouse Pub, Southside 313, American Male Barber Shop, Canielle’s Cafeteria and more. 

Derek Wallen, co-owner of Roasted, said the restaurant has been able to make a little bit of profit, but the support of the Chamber has been important. 

“It’s helped a lot financially,” Wallen said. “It has helped us pay rent and was the first grant that we’ve got during this time.” 

The Touchstone Theater closed on March 17 and will remain that way even with Northampton and Lehigh counties moving into the yellow phase on June 5. Once the counties move into the green phase, the theater will be able to operate at 50 percent.

Touchstone Managing Director Lisa Jordan said, while the theater has been doing online performances, they haven’t been able to welcome in any school programs, and their typical revenue has been entirely shut down. 

“The money from the (Chamber) helped us make up some of the lost revenue that we have experienced during this time and also helped us in adjusting from live performances to digital performances,” Jordan said.

Julia Voelzke

The Chamber will continue to provide funding and support the community businesses as long as they need it, Reinert said. 

Nova Stoller, ‘21, Panhellenic vice president of Greek relations, got the inspiration for this 5K fundraiser when she saw Colgate University doing one for their local community.

“Lehigh is such a core of the South Side, and the two play off of each other,” Stoller said. “Lehigh has contributed and helped out these businesses for so many years, and we wanted to do something to help them ensure that they stay in business and show our unconditional support.” 

Stoller said she has never seen so many Lehigh students committed to a fundraiser and noted the effectiveness of using social media to encourage donations and foster a community effort virtually. 

Lehigh students forget how important the school’s relationship with the South Side is, and the fundraiser helped everyone feel more connected, Stoller said. 

Rachel Kulakofsky, ‘21, said tagging people on their Instagram stories was an effective way for the Greek houses to get donations up. 

“I haven’t been in Bethlehem, since I’m studying in New Zealand this semester, but the thought about going back to Bethlehem where the businesses are struggling was heartbreaking,” Kulakofsky said. “When I was nominated, I didn’t hesitate because I don’t want any of them to go out of business.” 

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