Rubin: In times of disaster, mom-and-pop-up fundraisers shine

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

If you ever watched Steve Everitt get his neck shortened for Bo and the Wolverines at the Big House, send money.

Former University of Michigan and NFL lineman Steve Everitt is tapping his Wolverine connections to raise money for hurricane relief as he clears debris near his home in the Florida Keys, with an assist from 8-year-old daughter Jamie. Photo by Amy Everitt ________________________________________

If you played alongside him, there or in the NFL, send more.

The money’s not for Everitt, 47, though his house in Florida took a pounding from Hurricane Irma. It’s for his friends and neighbors on Lower Sugarloaf Key, who were pummeled even worse by wind and water and didn’t have eight-year careers in pro football to tide them over.

Still a large man, if not quite as sizable as before, he is determined to help in his own small way. His goal on is to collect $51,000, a figure his wife suggested because his uniform number as a University of Michigan center was 51.

Think of it as pop-up fundraising. It’s hardly a new concept — GoFundMe campaigns alone have collected more than $3 billion since 2010 — but the recent deluge of calamity feels unprecedented, and the mom-and-pop-up responses there and elsewhere feel especially kind.

The hurricane Irma-trashed bedroom of former University of Michigan player Steve Everitt and his wife Amy Everitt. Everitt is tapping his Wolverine connections to raise money for hurricane relief.

Houston. Florida. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Wildfires in California, hundreds shot in Las Vegas. As natural disasters and unnatural calamities come fast and furious, people want to do more than helplessly shake their heads at footage of floods and triage.

In Grosse Ile, good-hearted souls called down to Houston to see what was needed, then collected a truckload of it. A Methodist minister from Detroit will be sleeping on a floor in Puerto Rico later this week while her team assembles solar-powered generators.

Petitpren Inc., a beer distributor in Clinton Township, helped the Rotary Club of Mount Clemens fill a semi with water and toilet paper and found a trucker to haul it south. Kina Jones of Lincoln Park just sent her first shipment of rice and beans to her extended family in Caguas, Puerto Rico, having gleaned 850 earnest dollars from asking for help online.

Hands are extended everywhere — and most are giving, not taking.

Halfway between Marathon and Key West, Everitt is distributing $100 gift cards for Publix supermarkets and Home Depot, with the principals at his daughter’s elementary school and the high school on Key West quietly deciding who needs them most. The campaign called Michigan Football Fans for Florida is closing hard on $36,000, and if you donate at least $25, he’ll send you an autographed trading card.

The big players are helping too. The Red Cross still goes where angels hesitate to tread. The five former U.S. presidents launched a campaign called One America Appeal. Houston Texans football star J.J. Watt set out to raise $200,000 to clean up Hurricane Harvey’s mess and finally stopped at $37,132,057.

“I realize I don’t have J.J. Watt’s platform,” Everitt says. “I have no platform, basically. But I’m trying to get a little bit of that love for the Florida Keys.”

Jane Figal, right, and co-chair Jane Pushee direct drivers to the Grosse Ile Bridge to Texas charity drive on the island last month.

Rubble rouses sympathy. Fire sparks compassion. On Thursday, the search results for “Puerto Rico” at GoFundMe topped 17,000 for the first time.

There but for the grace of God and geography go us all — though where most of us see tragedy, a few see opportunity.

“People want to give out of the goodness of their hearts,” says Laura Blankenship of the BBB of Detroit & Eastern Michigan. “It’s unfortunate, but others take that as an opportunity to fill their own pockets.”

In Las Vegas, where 58 people died at a country music festival, the windows had barely been repaired at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino before Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt shut down a phony Facebook page. “There continue to be sham charities and websites seeking to profit from this horrific tragedy,” he said, and he asked consumers to stay vigilant.

Minds can be harder to read than signs. In a Wyandotte strip mall last month, a poster went up in a storefront near a Chinese restaurant: “Hurricane Relief.” Two weeks later, it was gone. Mission accomplished, or mischief accomplished?

“A newly formed organization may be well meaning,” Blankenship says, “but it can be difficult to check out where the money is going.”

On Grosse Ile, Robert Sawyer started with the destination and worked backward.

Sawyer, 46, owns a ride service company called GIlift. Over breakfast early last month, he and longtime local realtor Jane Pushee decided they needed to do something for flood-stricken residents of Houston.

Within two hours, he says, he had dialed the Greater Houston Community Foundation with two questions people often forget to ask before they start collecting teddy bears or backpacks: What can you actually use, and where should we bring it?

Simone Calvas of Dearborn and Cindy Curto of Grosse Ile pack some of the donations made to Grosse Ile Bridge to Texas. The semi from Northfield Trucking of Taylor ultimately transported the goods to Houston.

The program they call Grosse Ile Bridge to Texas kicked into gear Sept. 9 at a vacant space downtown. Northfield Trucking of Taylor supplied a semi, and in 12 hours, locals had packed it with water, cleaning materials and baby items.

“Grosse Ile showed its true colors,” Sawyer says, one of which was green. Some $3,000 in donated cash will be used for other Houston-centered projects across the next 11 months.

The Rev. Faith Fowler of Cass Community Social Services is focusing on Puerto Rico, where workers are dangling from helicopters to fix power lines and 80 percent of the territory is still without electricity.

She and a small team plan to arrive Thursday with parts to build 30 or 40 solar-powered generators at 500 donated dollars apiece, each capable of charging two cell phones and a computer every day while periodically running lights and a fan. The staging area will be a Methodist church where the Detroit contingent will also reside.

“We’ll sleep in our bags with no light and no water for four days,” Fowler says, and she laughs. “Pray for us.”

On a smaller hurricane-battered island to the northwest, Everitt’s metal roof held up, but beneath it ceilings fell. He’s also had three flat tires in the last two weeks because the streets are littered with roofing nails.

In an area where a lot of people are floating below the poverty line, he says, “I can’t imagine having to rebuild your house and your life while you’re working two jobs to get by.”

Everitt, his wife Amy and their 8-year-old daughter, Jamie, evacuated three days ahead of the storm aboard a friend’s fishing boat. They sailed to Fort Myers, then drove 110 miles north to Lakeland, where they watched radar images of Irma assaulting everything they own.

A few days later, he saw a report about looters from Miami coming down to his key in boats.

“Disaster brings out the worst in people,” he says. But then he considers the utility workers who swarmed in from other states, the truck driver who cleared 21/2 miles of debris from the main road, and all the strangers who maybe saw him throw a block 25 years ago and are throwing his campaign $50 now.

Truth is, he says, disaster also brings out the best.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

Giving wisely

Two questions to ask yourself before donating after a disaster — particularly on a crowdfunding site — are who, and how. Do you know the person doing the soliciting, or does a friend? Don’t assume that whoever forwarded you a pitch has first-hand knowledge. Also, does the pitch explain how the donated goods or money will reach the recipients?

“Keep in mind, those sites do very little vetting,” says Laura Blankenship of the BBB. Newly formed organizations are often difficult to check out, she says, so an established charity is often a safer bet. But even then, make sure you’re on the charity’s secure website: a link can take you to a fraudulent site modeled after the real one.