Care for the unhoused through a car for Heather, with comments on coming together as community

“If my faith in the goodness of humanity begins to wane, I’ll think about Heather Lake. She’s the Bloomington woman who delivers coffee on Saturday mornings to unhoused people who gather in Seminary Park.”

That is how Laura Lane begins a lovely article in the Bloomington Herald Times.

In this commentary I want to recap what was a wonderful and life-affirming 8 days in which community came together to help the unhoused of Bloomington by helping a person dedicated to helping those unhoused.

But before I go any further I let me note that if you wish to donate money to help the unhoused of Bloomington, you can do that by going to the ongoing GoFundMe site for the Bloomington Homeless Coalition.

The background:

Heather Lake is a long time friend. We met years ago, running. She’s a tough runner and has accomplished a significant feat that I have not and never will: she completed a 100 mile trail race. Despite that toughness, Heather is unable to work full time. So for the last several years she has devoted her time and energy to helping the unhoused people living in Bloomington. That’s a big jo0b because what people refer to as “Bloomington’s unhoused issue” is much more than that. Because Bloomington IN offers much better services for the unhoused than many other communities in our state, we have people living without shelter in Bloomington who come from all over the state and even from other states. It’s a tough life, being unhoused: each year dozens of unhoused people in Bloomington die and of those some of the deaths are due to hypothermia.

In the past few years Heather has been delivering donations, delivering emergency first aid services, and delivering coffee every Saturday morning with an older car that served her well but had become unreliable over the years. Three weeks ago her car spent an entire week in the shop: four days to diagnose what turned out to be an electrical problem, part of the fith day to fix it. That week happened to be one of the coldest of the winter so far, so Heather was greatly limited in the help she could offer.

The fundraiser:

Heather and I are in touch regularly and I had seen the deterioration over time in the reliability of her car. When it was out of commission for a week one of Heather’s friends (Tassie Gniady) and I convinced her to let us raise money for a new car using the online fundraising platform Gofundme. I figured if we were lucky we might be able to rais $10,000. To confirm this as an amount for which we could purchase a good car, Heather and I visited Royal Toyota, a very reputable dealership selling reliable cars. I asked our salesman, Dave Dove, if there were used cars for sale for under $10K. He replied that there was – a Corolla that they had for salew for $9,999 with the caveat that he needed to have the car looked over to see if there were any problems with it.

We went on our way and the next day, Wednesday, January 11th, I set up a fundraising site via GoFundMe and sent an email message to many of my personal friends. $10K was a fairly audacious goal; as the GoFundMe help information indicate, most people set up a fundraiser hoping to get $1,000. But we had two things going for us. First, it was a great cause. Second, there was already good awareness of Heather’s work thanks to a wonderful article in the Indiana Daily Student by student reporter Christina Avery with photos by fellow student Mallorey Daunhauer.

We turned the fundraising site Wednesday. I started emailing friends and family and posting notes in social media. Of the people from whom I solicited donations, one forwarded my note to the Bloomington Trinity Episcopal Church, where Heather is a member. Another friend posted a note within a social media chat channel at IU’s University Information Technology Services. By Thursday morning, roughly 18 hours into the fundraising drive, we had more than $1,000. Then I sent a note to the faculty, staff, and students of the IU Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering. I was flabbergasted by the response: thanks largely to gifts from the Luddy School community we were at $3,000 midday Thursday. Jimmy Moore, senior pastor of the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church posted a note in Facebook, and got that church community (of which my wife and I are members) involved. I wrote to the members of my former church, Ellettsville First United Methodist Church, and asked for their help. A running buddy and a person who organizes a trail running series that Heather and I have both run in (DINO) posted a note in social media, pulling in the running community.

And then…. Laura Lane called me. Laura is a beloved and long-time local reporter. She had heard about the fundraiser from someone who had heard about it from someone who had forwarded one of my email notes. She interviewed me, interviewed Heather, and then called up Dave Dove at Royal Toyota. We hadn’t said anything to Dave about Heather’s work; as far as he knew I was just some guy there to buy his girlfriend a car. Dave told Laura that the car we had talked about actually had too many problems to be a good pick for Heather. So to support Heather’s work he marked down a 2011 Toyota Camry from  its asking price of $12,900 to $10,000.

Laura’s article about Heather and the fundraiser appeared in Laura’s weekly “My favorite ride” column Friday night, and then was on the front page of the physical papers delivered Saturday morning. 

It was like someone turned on the money spigot. 

And on top of the impact of Laura’s article, Tassie took pictures of Heather delivering coffee and brownies Saturday and posted them on social media, also generating new donations. By Saturday afternoon we had $8,00 raised at the time this effort came to the attention Charles R. Royal Jr., the owner of Royal Toyota. He got in contact with Royal Toyota salesman Dave Dove and VP Brad Surian, and they decided to sell Heather the car for the amount of money we had raised at that point. Again. I was flabbergasted. I was also away from my computer when I heard this. When I got back to my computer Saturday evening I posted a note that we would shut down the fundraising effort Sunday night, and that any funds we received in excess of the cost of the car would go to other costs of the car (plates and insurance) and then any additional funds would be donated to help the homeless of Bloomington.

In the end, we raised $10,465 through donations of 150 people. Heather, Tassie, Laura, and I met together to pick up Heather’s car.  We picked up Heather’s car on Wednesday the 19th, 7 days almost to the hour from the time we started the GoFundMe drive. The bottom line price from Royal? $8,000 – including the cost of the car, tax, and dealer prep. That means that Royal in the end discounted the car from $12,900 to around $7,400. That means they discounted the car by more than 40% of the original asking price. We all were either on the edge of or in tears.

Heather is back in business!

Heather is back delivering clothing, supplies, food, and coffee to the unhoused of Bloomington. Above is a picture of Heather in her car on the day she picked it up. Below is a picture of Heather’s car with the (very large) trunk packed with donations for the unhoused.

A car trunk full of clothes

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Where from here?

This was an amazing and affirming experience. Many communities were involved locally and nationally. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this effort was the unanimity of support. Tassie, Heather, and I posted notes on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, and reddit) and I sent email that in the end went to thousands of people. There was not a single snarky reply to anything that any of us posted or sent.

It has warmed my heart to see our community come together in the midst of the pandemic and all of the divisiveness we see within the USA these days. That comment – about how wonderful it was to see everyone coming together without dissension- was the second most frequent comment from people who have supported this effort. (The most frequent comment was simply support for Heather and her work with the unhoused). One donor sent a note back saying the following: “I am so HAPPY! Amidst all the strife and stress going on during this pandemic surge, I was thrilled to donate to this cause and see it succeed! Best wishes to Heather Lake and her remarkable volunteerism … !”

At this time of national divisiveness I wonder if it is hopeless to try to find common ground on the big questions of the day and perhaps more useful to find those areas where everyone can agree. Like supporting a person who dedicates her life to helping those less fortunate.  

Let me quote from a note that I received from a dear friend and one of the wisest people I know: “… I’m not one for making yearly life plans or even setting new year’s resolutions but I would like to challenge you  this year. We’re surrounded by negativity and setbacks which even without a pandemic was problematic, too often we’re looking for the next success instead of focusing on the present, and for me the cynic comes out instead of the positive situations around us. If you have a few minutes consider watching (or re-watching) Shawn Achor at TEDxBloomington 2011.” In this TEDx talk Shawn suggests ways that we can each create positive change that include taking time to be grateful, journaling, and random and intentional acts of kindness. I hope that “where to from here” for you means being attentive to those opportunities that the Universe presents to you as ways to be positive.

This was never about Heather and a car. It has always been about getting Heather the tools she needs to continue what she’s done for years to help unhoused people in Bloomington. For one glorious week the communities of Bloomington, IU, local churches, the statewide running community, and the national computing community came together to do something truly wonderful.

I hope that you are inspired to look in your life for the opportunities that the universe gives you to express your good heart and positivity. For me this has been just a wonder. And in the end, really, all I did was create the opportunity for others to be a blessing to Heather. 150 people took that opportunity. That is the important message here. Bless each and every one of you.

To wrap up this story:

Thank YOU.

Social justice is a goal, not an event. The struggle of the unhoused goes on. Please consider what you can do to support Beacon , the Bloomington Homeless Coalition, and the other churches and social organizations that help the unhoused of Bloomington every day.

We all need a ray of hope right now especially. This effort has been a ray of hope for me and I hope for you as well. 

More detailed thank yous to each of the following:

Each and every donor and each and every person who paused and offered a prayer or positive thought for this effort. 150 people made donations in amounts from $5 to $1000. Your generosity – your opening your heart – made this possible. 

Royal Toyota of Bloomington IN, Dave Dove, Royal Toyota VP Brad Surian, and dealership owner Charles R. Royal Jr.The car Heather is getting was listed for sale by Royal Toyota for $12,900. Heather, Tassie, and I (the fundraising team) initially thought that this car was just out of reach. At first we had our eyes on another car that had been traded in and was listed for $10,000. When Dave Dove found out what our plans were for Heather’s car (from reporter Laura Lane, see below), Dave said that the car we were looking at was not the right car for Heather and instead offered to sell Heather the 2011 Camry for $10,000.  As if that was not generous enough, Dave called Heather and me Saturday afternoon. After Mr. Royal, dealership owner, saw the fundraiser, he had the idea to sell the car to Heather for the amount of money we had in the fund as of Saturday afternoon. $8,000 total – car, tax, and dealer prep. Doing the math backwards that’s a sale price of a bit less than $7,500 on a car that originally listed for $12,900.  Well more than 1/3 off the original price at a time when we all know every car dealership in Indiana is suffering because of supply chain issues and the pandemic. THANK YOU ROYAL TOYOTA!!!!!!!!!!

The Bloomington Herald Times  and reporter Laura Lane. Laura heard about this effort from a person who heard about this effort from a friend of Heather and mine. Laura contacted us Thursday afternoon and then interviewed me, Heather, and took photos of Heather. A lovely article was online in the Herald Times Friday afternoon  and then on the front page of the physical paper Saturday morning. That publicity helped raise awareness and was utterly critical to the success of this fundraising effort. It is impossible to thank Laura enough for her essential role in the success of this effort.

The Indiana Daily Student and staff members Christina Avery and Mallorey Daunhauer.  A critical element in the success of this whole effort was a lovely article that appeared in the IDS last fall , written by Christina Avery  with photographs by Mallorey Daunhauer. The article itself was great, raising awareness of the plight of the unhoused in Bloomington and Heather’s role in helping them. I doubt that this fundraising effort would have been successful without the awareness that the IDS and its staff created with this article. Furthermore the IDS very kindly gave us permission to use one of Mallorey’s photographs of Heather for this fundraising effort.

Heather, for doing what she does. Supporting her work with the unhoused is the whole point of this exercise. Heather is going to sell her existing car and donate the proceeds to help the unhoused of Bloomington.

A whole host of specific donor groups deserve special shout-outs:
*Staff of University Information Technology Services at IU and the membership of Trinity Episcopal Church who were the “lead” group of donors and who were largely responsible for getting us up to our first $1,000.
*Faculty, staff, and students of the Luddy School of Informatics Computing and Engineering  who led the charge up to $3,000 in donations. Their early surge in making donations enabled this effort seem credible by the time it came to the attention of Laura Lane and Royal Toyota. I am as thankful for the many students who donated $5 each as I am for the many faculty who donated $100.
*Members and attendees of  St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Bloomington and the Ellettsville First United Methodist Church 
*The local running community. Special thanks go to former members of the Bloomington Area Runner’s Association (a group that did not survive the pandemic) and the DINO (Do INdiana Offroad) running community (which thankfully HAS survived the pandemic). 
*The Bloomington Reddit community, which also supported this effort, and many people who heard about this effort through Facebook.
*My professional colleagues throughout the nation who heard about this effort through LinkedIn and contributed to the cause from many miles away.

A few thoughts on GoFundMe:

We could not have done this without the social media fundraising platform GoFundMe. They take as their fee 3.5% of the donations made through the platform – which I consider to be pretty reasonable. I can recommend GoFundMe as a vehicle for others to use in raising funds fir good causes. There is a lot of good information available on how to run an effective GoFundMe campaign. We set an aggressive – even audacious – goal. We got there for a variety of reasons. Management of a sense of momentum by involving different communities in sequence was part of this. Thanking people promptly via GoFundMe was another part. I recommend GoFundMe highly and I also recommend going to school a bit via online information about how to manage a campaign well.

A few thoughts to end with:
Thank you. Did I say thank you already? Sure I did. But thank you again.

Thank you also to my colleagues in the core fundraising team: Heather Lake and Tassie Gniady. Tassie hasn’t been out in front of the effort as much as me and Heather, but she has been a critical source of good judgment and wisdom, as well as being the person behind several photos of Heather posted on Facebook which helped create a burst of donations.

I should disclose my relationships with various entities I mentioned above: My wife and I have been Royal customers for decades. Royal car dealerships now have my undying gratitude. My wife and I have been Herald Times subscribers for many decades, and for most of that time I have known Laura Lane. No one will argue that the H-T today is what it was when Laura first started working there. My hats off to her and her colleagues for keeping local journalism alive during these challenging times. I’ve worked with researchers in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering for years and have an adjunct professor appointment there. I’ve worked at IU as part of what is now called University Information Technology Services for decades and have many friends who are part of that organization. I’ve been an IDS reader for decades and have donated in the past to the IDS (and will again in the future). I have run in the DINO trail running series for decades and am friends with the DINO director. Some of my favorite memories of running with Heather are from DINO events.  I am a member of the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church and before that the Ellettsville First United Methodist Church.  Last and not least I need to thank my wife Marion and the Simon Cancer Center. My wife is always a great source of support, this effort included. And I need to thank her and the Simon Cancer Center for the fact that I am alive and able to do this work; without them I would not be.