The goal was $50,000, and the total raised $80,457.55. Some are calling it a miracle, and in a city with a population of less than 3,000, in a county with an optimistic estimated population of 30,000, it is hard to disagree.
The owner of Dairy Queen Grill & Chill in Gray, Justin Kelly, announced the grand total for the Oct. 28 fundraiser and presented the check for $80,457.55 to Renee Bryan with the Children’s Miracle Network for Macon’s Beverly Knight Olson Children’s Hospital prior to the Greyhounds football game Oct. 29.
DQ’s Miracle Treat Day was a franchise-wide fundraiser for the Children Miracle Network during which most participating restaurants donated $1 for each frozen treat sold that day. Kelly, however, wanted to do more and pledged to donate every cent of sales for the entire day to the children.
He started working on his plan in August.
The 50 DQ employees in Gray got on board and decided to donate their salaries for the day, and even before Thursday arrived, local business owners started opening their checkbooks. The result of the fundraiser is now history.
Businesses donated hundreds and many thousands of dollars to the cause of helping sick children. Notably, local entrepreneur TJ Heath pledged to match the amount raised by DQ that day, and Jimmy Goolsby pledged to match 50 cents on the dollar. Other local businesses pledged to match the collections for the busiest hours of the day and donations taken from the public at the cash register totaled more than $6,000.
Kelly remained optimistic as the day approached that the restaurant would meet its goal, but he was not prepared for how far that goal would be exceeded.
His first Facebook post after the fundraiser stated that he knew if Oct. 28 was a sunny day they would meet their goal, but that was not the case. It was rainy and cold.
“When the very first young man that walked in headed to work, bought a biscuit, paid for it with a $100 bill and said he’d like to donate the rest to the children’s hospital, I knew Gray was about to show up and show out for this cause,” Kelly said.
He said all day long volunteers and the DQ staff stayed positive, and then business owners started showing up to write checks.
“The harder it rained, the more they showed up,” the owner said.
Kelly said it was about 2:15 p.m. when the clouds started to part and sun rays began to bust through the clouds.
“I just knew in my heart we could still accomplish our goal of $50,000 if Gray showed up to eat … and boy did Gray show up. From the time school let out to the time we closed, the parking lot was at capacity and the drive thru was wrapped around the building twice. When this city comes together and sets their minds to it, they can accomplish anything.”
Kelly promised amazing news at the football game the following night and he did not disappoint.
He called the fundraiser a true small-town miracle and prepared Facebook followers for the announcement that was coming.
“I’m so proud of our town that I’ve had to fight tears and emotions all day as I witnessed my hometown do whatever it took to meet the needs of sick children in our community,” the owner said. “I love y’all, and in less than 24 hours, Gray is going to reassure anyone that doubts miracles exist that miracles are real, and they can happen right here.”
Dairy Queen is Gray is no stranger to fundraisers under Kelly’s leadership, hosting “Spirit Nights” for school organizations weekly as well as for Jones County Animal Services.
A ‘round-up for the kids’ campaign took place in June and July with funds going directly to the children’s hospital, which was just a warm up for what happened Oct. 28.
In a Sunday afternoon interview, Kelly said it was the people and businesses in Gray and Jones County that made the miracle happen.
“DQ challenged the community, and the community stepped up,” he said. “It started with a single act of kindness; generosity always creates a ripple effect.”
Kelly took over the business almost a year ago, and the changes were immediate and from the inside out. Before purchasing the franchise, he attended training in Canton, Ohio, in October of 2020.
He said he took over operation of the restaurant mid-November, and renovations immediately began. The restaurant was completely closed for 20 days.
Kelly owns the business, and Heath owns the building.
While the physical work took place on the building, he said training was taking place for employees. DQ corporate trainers came in and worked on everything from customer service to cooking.
He said when those trainers left, Chick-fil-A consultants were brought in.
The drive-thru was reopened at the conclusion of those 20 days, but the renovations continued. Kelly said 65-70 percent of the previous staff remained at the restaurant, and the transition was about leadership and coaching. The restaurant is fully staffed with employees at a time when others are closing because they cannot find workers.
Kelly said owning the restaurant has been a goal of his for years. He said his management plan included simple, common-sense steps. Everything from cleaning to grass cutting is done on schedule.
The owner was born and raised in Jones County and attended Jones County High School. He began his business career working in trucking before going to work at H&H Body Shop for 10 years.
The owner is no doubt proud of DQ’s success, but what really makes him happy is talking about how the restaurant is giving back to the community.
The restaurant had a fundraiser for the children’s hospital this summer and has numerous fundraisers for Jones County schools and organizations throughout the year.
DQ hosts other events for the schools like the weekly prayer breakfasts.
Kelly was asked what is next after such a huge success. His answer was he was sure there would be another big event, but for now the plan is to continue to do a lot of small things for the community.
He said Tuesday nights are dedicated to Spirit Night fundraisers for Jones County schools and school organizations. The owner said as things come up, the plan is to be there to help.
“We will always be the sowers of good seeds,” he said.
Kelly said he realizes that the restaurant is in a unique position to get the community involved.
“I think what we did has changed the way some people look at things. We want to keep doing that.”