In less than two weeks, we raised over US$2000 and bought a Chevy Suburban for John, the homeless veteran who works as a part time janitor at my office. Here’s why and how we raised the money. Part 2, coming up next, will share our truck hunting experience and give more details on John’s new wheels.
John’s a good guy. He’s easy to talk to, just about always smiling, and goes out of his way to do right by others best he can. He’s served in both the US Air Force and Army, and spent some time in a police cruiser in a civilian law enforcement capacity He’s just about spent his entire life serving his friends, neighbors, and countrymen. His humble, friendly demeanor makes it easy to lend him your ear when he comes through the room to empty trash cans in the evening.
THE BACK STORY
When John mentioned sleeping in a car a couple months back, it caught me completely by surprise. When he told me he’d been homeless going on four months at that point, even moreso. He told me how his buddy – we’ll call him “Buddy” – drops him off for work around 6PM, picks him up after 1AM, and then the two of them park behind a grocery store to sleep in Buddy’s tired, mid-90s Mercedes C230.
Buddy was John’s predecessor in the Janitorial Sciences. More than a few years older – and all the more bitter – he never really got along with anyone on our team. Unlike John, when Buddy walked into the room, you immediately got very focused on whatever you were doing so as not to endure another political diatribe. One evening, I was streaming Pandora. I didn’t even think it was possible to spin Foghat into an anti-Obama rant, let alone in under 10 seconds, but such was Buddy’s style.
These two had been roommates for some time, and when Buddy decided to look for work out of state, he decided he wouldn’t renew the lease on the apartment. Unable to afford the rent himself – and having sold his own vehicle to help pay said rent months prior – John ended up moving into the Merc with Buddy over the summer.
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION
I was working the late shift New Year’s Eve. This meant John and I would cross paths. He seemed unusually down as he pushed his cart into the NOC (network operations center, for the non-IT folks in the audience) that night. I asked him what was up. That’s when he dropped the bomb. Buddy had landed a job – in northern California – and would be leaving in a week or so. John wasn’t invited to come along. This meant John was about a week away from literally sleeping under a bridge or something.
I asked John about various veterans’ charities and organizations. He’d contacted them all. The United States government can throw a few hundred million dollars’ more into the fiscal catastrophe that is the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, or put a cruise missile in the back seat of a terrorist’s car in 30 minutes or less, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t only marginally better than incompetent when it comes to taking care of the troops once they’re back home. John faced a seven month wait for a medical appointment, only to be told at said appointment that it would be another 13 months before they could do anything for him.
When he called the VA to ask for help because he was literally on the verge of sleeping behind dumpsters and losing his job, he was told to stay at a civilian homeless shelter and wait for another appointment. All the charities out there for veterans have to make wounded combat vets just returning their first priority. Beyond that, it’s a 2-3 year wait for anything. We didn’t have the luxury of time. We couldn’t just sit back and let good guy John see the last shreds of civility stripped of him.
As I drove home that night, I ran the numbers in my head. Maybe I could crowdfund $1000 and JP, my long time gearhead brother and co-worker, and I could find a halfway decent beater on Craigslist so John would at least have a little shelter and a means to get to work. I felt sick to my stomach. I’d shared a high level version of the story on Facebook and had a couple friends ask where to send money, but how much could we really raise, and would it even be enough? I really didn’t think it would work.
NEW YEAR’S DAY
Throughout the day, I kept going back and reading all the rules and FAQs on GoFundMe.com, a crowdfunding site John, himself, had mentioned to me. He’d tried raising money there, but had gotten nowhere. I compared it to Kickstarter, the more famous such site, but where Kickstarter raises money for things the whole world can enjoy – think: products – and only funds those which reach their fundraising targets, GoFundMe is for just about anything, and you can keep whatever you receive, whether you meet your goal or not.
It was around 3 or 4 Thursday afternoon – New Year’s Day – when I created the campaign. I asked for $1100 to buy a “Craigslist Special” and cover our fees (5% for GoFundMe, plus about 3% for the credit card processor).Vanessa and I put $100 in and I shared the story on my Facebook page. I’d raised maybe $300 by the time I went to bed. It was pushing $400 when I got up in the morning to go back to work.
1 JANUARY 2015
The next day, it was just Mark, our regional data center manager, and I in the facility all day. Fortunately, the phones were quiet due to people taking that last, long holiday weekend for a while. I posted an update to the campaign, thanking everyone who donated. More emails came in with donations. I sent more thank you emails.
By lunchtime, we were over $600. I was starting to get optimistic. “Is this really going to happen? Maybe, if donations keep coming in like this over the weekend,” I thought. I posted links on 4x4wire.com and GalantVR4.org, two staples of my online routine. A couple donations came in. I asked Chazz Layne and Christophe Noel over at ExpeditionPortal if I could ask for donations on their forum and they quickly replied with permission. A couple more donations! “Is this really going to happen in 24 hours?”
Running out of ideas – I’ve never done this before, but the lesson to learn with crowdfunding is that it’s largely YOUR crowd doing the funding – I sent an email to the one and only Jack Baruth, who writes for Road & Track, The Truth About Cars, and elsewhere. Jack has a pretty sizeable crowd, and rightly so – he’s one of the most intelligent and entertaining auto-writers around these days. But I mainly shared the story with Jack because I know him as someone who wants to see the good guys win. John is a good guy, I explained, and asked if he could help.
I think it was 15 minutes later, Jack had made a donation. He also had a piece up on the front page of The Truth About Cars, one of the biggest and most trusted names in automotive news and information on the web, sharing John’s story, what we were trying to do, and sweetening the deal. He said he would send anyone who donated more than $75 – and left him a comment to confirm – a free t-shirt.
Donations started pouring in. Overnight, we’d gone from $300 to $400. By lunchtime, we were over $600. I had barely posted the update suggesting a stretch goal of $1500 to buy a better machine when we hit $1600. As I was back and forth out to the data center floor to help customers, I’d stop by Mark’s door and we were both blown away by the response.
Just before Paul showed up for shift change at 4PM, I made sure everyone who donated got a personal thank you and posted an update saying I’d shut down donations sometime after dinner. I left the office that day the polar opposite of the night before. I mean, it’s not every day you feel like the entire Universe wants to see you succeed. I felt like a million bucks.
Vanessa, Penny, and I went to our favorite Indian restaurant for dinner that night. I ordered a beer with my Chicken Vindaloo; a Haywards 5000. I don’t know if it’s a naturally sweet beer, but it tasted oh, so sweet that night. After dinner, the three of us were in such a good mood, we ran some errands, and then V and I pretty much passed out after P went to bed.
First thing Saturday morning, I turned off donations and sent the last of the personal thank yous. In total, we raised $2140. I began the withdrawal process, at which point GoFundMe advised I would have $1959 deposited in my bank account within 2-5 business days. I hoped we’d be able to find a car in time.
To be continued. Coming up next, what JP and I test drove in pursuit of John’s wheels, how we surprised him with it, and John’s personal words of thanks. Don’t miss it!