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The Thunderbirds in the Community – Rising to the Challenge

When we look back at 2020 from a sporting lens, we’ll likely point to March 11th as the day everything changed. That fateful date marked the beginning of a rapid, indefinite cancelation of nearly every sporting event on the planet. March Madness, gone. The Olympics were pushed to next year. And the PGA TOUR rushed to find their part in a solution to one of the greatest global challenges in recent history. The sporting world, of course, wasn’t the only hard-hit industry during the COVID-19 global pandemic. The charity sector was decimated, finding itself without regular grants and donations from dependable organizations for the first time in decades. Thankfully, however, Arizona charities had an ace in the hole – The Thunderbirds.

As pillars of the Arizona philanthropic community, The Thunderbirds – much like the mythical bird for which their home city is named – rose from the ashes of anxiety to provide much-needed aid to hundreds of local charities and nonprofits. Within days after the CDC officially designated COVID-19 as a global pandemic in March, The Thunderbirds stepped up with an emergency $1 million donation local charitable groups including Boys and Girls Clubs of the Valley, St. Mary’s Food Bank and St. Vincent de Paul.

“Thanks to the tremendous community support every year of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, The Thunderbirds are in a unique position to provide immediate support,” said Chance Cozby, executive director of The Thunderbirds. “We are in unprecedented times. We felt, as an organization, it was imperative to act quickly and get much-needed funds to help those in dire need as soon as possible.”

Months later in August after a second wave of positive COVID-19 cases gripped the nation, The Thunderbirds announced an additional donation of $3.8 million to 43 Valley charities as part of their Spring funding cycle.

“We understand the importance these charities serve and that was never more evident than this spring when we had to band together to battle this pandemic,” said Tim Woods, Thunderbirds Big Chief. “To see what is happening in our community and how we as an organization are able to help so many is a very proud moment.”

After an influx of monetary support, The Thunderbirds took advantage of virtual meeting platforms like Zoom to launch their “In the Community Conversations” and reached out to dozens of charity partners to learn more about specific needs and to rally the community around common causes. In total, The Thunderbirds conducted 30 separate interviews with Arizona charity leaders and found ways to ease the burden of overwhelmed organizations.

Some organizations like Teen Lifeline who provides support to young people experiencing depression needed sanitation equipment. Ronald McDonald House which provides housing to families whose children are receiving life-saving treatment at world-renowned pediatric centers needed meal donations more than anything else. Others needed additional volunteers, cash donations and clothing to name a few.

“What we found was every organization we spoke to had unique needs,” said 2021 tournament chairman Scott Jenkins. “Cash donations never hurt, but we realized our group could help with more than just providing funds. Writing checks can help from a distance, certainly, but real community support comes from rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.”

Get to work they did. As many Arizona schools prepared to open their doors to students for the first time in months, The Thunderbirds helped ensure every young learner had the tools they needed to succeed by providing on-site support to Arizona Helping Hands. They prepared first-aid kits, filled backpacks full of school supplies and even built bicycles.

“Thunderbirds Charities is very proud of our 10-year partnership with Arizona Helping Hands,” said Ed Grant of The Thunderbirds. “Especially during this pandemic where so many children who are used to getting service – either from their church or their school – are not receiving them right now. But Arizona Helping Hands continued to provide that. It’s very meaningful and it’s very important to us.”

Realizing the importance of exercise and playing safely, The Thunderbirds went to Special Olympics Arizona’s headquarters to help prepare 140 “Return to Play” bags full of personal protection equipment like thermometers, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to assist SOAZ programs start planning to resume activities. And To celebrate Rebuilding Together Valley of the Sun’s 30th anniversary and as part of their commitment to local non-profit organizations, The Thunderbirds helped Rebuilding Together manufacture and install a wheelchair ramp at the home of a local woman with mobility challenges who had a hard time getting up and down her stairs.

Tyler Kent of The Thunderbirds was on hand to aid in the installation and also shed light on what these projects and the work of the organization at large mean to him and his fellow Thunderbirds.

“With the pandemic, charities need more help than ever,” said Kent. “The Thunderbirds have supported our charity partners financially, but what’s more meaningful today is working alongside my fellow thunderbirds and our charity partners in the community to bring joy and happiness to people in need.”

To lend a hand during the holidays more than 50 Thunderbirds and a number of Waste Management officials visited St. Mary’s Food Bank and United Food Bank before Thanksgiving and Christmas to assist with emergency food preparation. Over the course of two hours, The Thunderbirds and Waste Management officials packed more than 3,000 emergency food boxes and filled 864 backpacks with food for children who do not have access to proper nutrition outside of school – which has been directly impacted by COVID precautions. St. Mary’s Food Bank estimates this 2-hour food pack from The Thunderbirds and Waste Management resulted in helping nearly 2,400 Arizonans.

“These vital organizations do an amazing job helping hungry people in our community regardless of the circumstances,” said Thunderbirds Big Chief Chance Cozby. “Obviously, the current health crisis has impacted their ability to serve the community in the same ways they have in the past, but through volunteer support and the backing of the community at large, we know we can come together and provide aid and assistance to these as much as we can.”

It goes to show what can be done when a community comes together. And while we’re not out of the woods just yet, knowing the community support of the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the host Thunderbirds can and does lead to extraordinary charitable giving is a sight for sore eyes as we inch towards getting back to normal.