Local fundraisers take on new meaning during pandemic

With these hardships have come stories of the power of community crowdfunding in our own backyards.

In early September, tragedy struck Tukwila resident Taheem Jones and his family in an already difficult year when a two-alarm fire destroyed their apartment building and all their belongings.

With his family out of town, Jones was the one to find the apartment on fire as a result of a different unit in the building. He couldn’t go inside, and by the next day, he discovered it was completely burnt down.

“I was in shock. We didn’t know what to do,” Jones said.

Jones has been a coach at Issaquah’s Skyline High School for three years, and has been entrenched in their basketball programs for almost eight years. He reached out to a parent he had seen the night of the fire and told her about what happened. Then she and two other parents — Paige Haapala, Sarah Edwards and Jeannette Gorman — took matters into their own hands to create a GoFundMe account to support his family in some small way after losing everything.

The results were more than anyone expected. The fundraising link was shared throughout the community and exceeded the $10,000 goal, then exceeded the second goal of $15,000, ultimately raising $22,655.

With that money, Jones and his family got a new apartment, they have covered rent for the next year. People have donated furniture and even helped garner business for Jones’ hardwood flooring business, which has been struggling during the pandemic.

“Everyone I’ve shown love to in the past years came out to help and keep me afloat as much as they could,” Jones said. “It felt like we had a home to go to and start over with.”

The power of crowdfunding

Families, businesses and organizations around the world are being devastated during the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways, including financially. But with these hardships have also come stories of the strength and power of community crowdfunding in our own backyards.

Former Major League Baseball player Gerald Smiley used a GoFundMe in 2017 to raise money to save his alma mater high school, but he had concerns with the fees that the website took from the fundraiser. He also didn’t like the lack of process involved to validate where funds for a campaign will go.

Smiley said he then got the idea from a dream in March 2018 to start his own fundraising website, Chip-in. He pitched the idea for a local, transparent fundraising platform with Redmond startup studio Doxxa and was able to start its first fundraiser in July 2020, which buys laptops for students in Federal Way Public Schools, as previously reported in Federal Way Mirror.

Since the start of that fundraiser, the Federal Way school district has received almost $45,000.

Smiley is a board commissioner for Seattle Housing Authority, and said that experience has helped shape what he determined people want to see from their donations.

“People don’t always get to see the money. Our taxes get raised, but most don’t really know where it goes,” Smiley said. “So by creating a platform that we can all use to stick together and be transparent with our funds, we say, ‘This is our community, I can give a little to help these things happen.’”

Smiley said they have been pushing the Chip-in platform with an aggressive grassroots campaign in Washington state, pitching the ideas that all money from a fundraiser is given to the organizers, and that just a little donation from a large community can make a significant difference in people’s lives. The platform also uses incentives including user profiles and live fundraising events to encourage lots of people to offer a little.

One example Smiley gave was a Seahawks-themed fundraiser. Participants could pledge $1 to a community fundraiser for every touchdown. Donors are also incentivized with prizes and discounts from participating local business partners, he said.

But launching Chip-in in 2020 has created a drastic change to this story. Community members have been rallying around Chip-in fundraisers even without incentives, Smiley said, as people want to support one another.

“Everything we’re doing right now is just speaking to what’s going on in our world,” Smiley said. “It’s really powerful to see the community come together. It’s a miracle. It proves if you just chip in a little bit here or there, whenever you can, you can change, not just Washington, our whole world.”

A friend of Smiley, Tony Hayes, is a community activist who ultimately exceeded his goal for funding meals using a Chip-in fundraiser.

Classic Eats Restaurant owner Tony Hayes distributing gift certificates to Highline School District staff. Hayes is one of many King County residents that have been giving back during this time of need in 2020. Courtesy photo/Tony Hayes.

Classic Eats Restaurant owner Tony Hayes distributing gift certificates to Highline School District staff. Hayes is one of many King County residents that have been giving back during this time of need in 2020. Courtesy photo/Tony Hayes.

Hayes, owner of Classic Eats in Burien, started his Chip-in in October and reached his goal in two weeks. The Chip-in fundraiser raised $6,300 to offer 400 gift certificates for healthy meals for students and teachers in the Highline School District. Hayes partnered with the district to distribute the gift cards through principals of different schools.

“It was astonishing how fast people responded to it,” Hayes said. “I think the community felt super comfortable getting behind it and knew I was a big Highline School District alum.”

He said the transparency of the platform was part of his fundraiser’s success, and he doesn’t believe the pandemic increased the number of donors. But for Hayes, the support he has received with his restaurant during this pandemic was another incentive for him to create the Chip-in fundraiser. Everyone who supported through Chip-in also got a 20% discount at Classic Eats.

Hayes also plans to start future fundraisers on Chip-in, including a possible winter fundraiser for clothing for people who are homeless and need extra help this season.

Another campaign underway is the Renton Chamber of Commerce’s fundraiser to create grants for downtown Renton businesses, Renton Stronger Together Project, which has raised just shy of $10,000 for its $50,000 goal. Before the most recent shutdown, Renton had lost at least 40 businesses to temporary or permanent closures during this pandemic.

“If we can get 50,000 people to chip in $13.50, we can create $675,000 to support those small businesses in Renton that are on their last leg,” Smiley said of the Renton fundraiser.

Smiley said future plans for Chip-in include creating year-long scholarship fundraiser programs for each county, supporting young folks’ passion and goals.

“We’re hoping Chip-in becomes a household name, and you ask ‘Hey, have you Chipped-in this month?’” Smiley said. “Even if you’re in need and still pitch in $1, that’s what has been proven during this pandemic: People really stuck together and it’s amazing to see. We’re in a place in this world where love and transparency needs to be spread more.”

For Jones, the Issaquah basketball coach who was blanketed with community support after his apartment caught fire, the community support that’s coming together for him during the pandemic has been overwhelming.

Now he said he’s continuing the cycle of sharing with his nonprofit, Guard Academy, that offers additional mentoring and skill training to young athletes and students in King County.

“It’s just come full circle,” Jones said. “If you show everybody you’re here to help your community, it will come back around.”

Learn more

More information on Chip-in and its fundraisers is available at chip-in.co.

Classic Eats Restaurant owner Tony Hayes distributing food to Highline School District staff. Courtesy photo/Tony Hayes.

Classic Eats Restaurant owner Tony Hayes distributing food to Highline School District staff. Courtesy photo/Tony Hayes.