The words might seem odd coming from an 18-year-old high school senior missing nearly the entire right side of his skull.
By ERIC ADLER
The Kansas City Star
“I feel blessed,” Andrew Witherspoon of North Kansas City High School said last week, recovering at home on his couch with a line of intravenous antibiotics dripping into his right arm.
“He is truly, truly, truly blessed,” echoed Monika Witherspoon, 39, a single mother and struggling hairdresser who barely six weeks ago almost lost the younger of her two boys to a sinus infection that strangely migrated and infected his brain.
That Drew, as he is known, is alive — and not expected to suffer any damage after two brain operations — is the first and greatest grace the family has received, his mother said.
But the second is something she never anticipated — more than $5,000 donated so far from friends, family and anonymous givers who went online to GoFundMe.com to the page Pray4Drew.
“I never expected anyone to contribute a penny,” said Monika Witherspoon. “… This is one time I can honestly say, ‘Thank God for social media.’ If it wasn’t for social media, I would not be in the situation I am in now.”
Nationwide, tens of thousands of people, including hundreds in the Kansas City region, are saying the same.
Personal fundraising campaigns for events both tragic and happy — medical bills and funerals, mission trips and pageant fees — once relied on bake sales, solicitation letters and penny jars in convenience stores. But in the last five years, they have become the stuff of Web-based crowdfunding platforms passing along hundreds of millions of donated dollars.
To be sure, many people already understand the basics of crowdfunding because of Kickstarter.com. Started in 2009, it is dedicated to connecting financial backers with creative or entrepreneurial projects.
Individuals or groups called “project creators” submit proposals to the site. They could be an independent movie, a music album, a video game, a novel piece of technology or even a social project.
People then go to the site and decide whether and how much to pledge, motivated by good will or a reward like a T-shirt or the finished product itself.
The company says that in 2013, some 3 million backers worldwide pledged an average of $1.3 million a day to projects on Kickstarter that included award-winning films and a new skate park in Philadelphia.
But what Kickstarter is to creative and entrepreneurial projects, other sites such as GoFundMe, Indiegogo, Give Forward, FundRazr and Human Tribe Project have become to personal fundraising for major life events.
Katie Cole hopes to be Miss Missouri USA. Originally from Iowa, the 24-year-old now lives in Maryville, Mo., where she attended college.
Instead of trying to conscript businesses or sponsors to help her raise the $1,200 she estimates it will cost for entry fees, hotels and meals for the November competition in St. Charles, she posted her campaign on GoFundMe earlier this month.
“I was shocked when within probably an hour or two I already had $50 in there,” said Cole, who also competed last year to be Miss Missouri in the Miss America competition.
So far, with minimal effort, telling friends and posting the site on Facebook, she has $475.
In Buffalo, N.Y., Patience Faye Pechette posted her campaign in late January. She was looking for $500.
“I am hoping to be able to visit my birth daughter that I placed for adoption when I was 17. She lives in Missouri,” she wrote, “and we have had the pleasure of meeting for the first time two summers ago. She is now 19. … I was hoping to be able to drive down to see her and take my son who is her full biological brother, age 13. It has been almost an entire year since I have seen her and each month that passes by becomes harder and harder.”
At last count, she has received $355, mostly from donations of less than $50.
“It was a no-pressure way for me to share my desire to visit as well as admit I do not have enough funds to do it on my own,” Pechette said by email. “I shared it on my Facebook page … and from there it was shared many times by friends and family. I received far more support than I expected.”
But by far, experts said, one of the fastest-growing categories is for health and medical problems and families in emergency need.
In an email, GoFundMe CEO Brad Damphousse confirmed this about his own site, which he said is on pace to raise $600 million for personal causes this year.
“The reality is that the majority of crowdfunding is still for some cool gadgets,” said David Bratvold, the founder of San Diego-based Daily Crowdsource, which helps train companies on the topic. “The next is for health care.”
When Josh Crandall heard less than two weeks ago that Amber Smith Kent of Higginsville, Mo., the sister of one of his best childhood friends, had died suddenly at age 35, he felt helpless. Crandall now lives and works in Pennsylvania.
Kent, he knew, had four children ages 5 to 14. She also had an adult sister who lived in Japan and needed to get home for the funeral. The idea of sending a card with money seemed too little.
He posted the campaign with a goal of $10,000 and a note.
“I am setting up this donation page to raise money to help out in any way possible,” he wrote. “Between flights home from Japan to future college plans, this is a fantastic opportunity to show your support of this family with a donation that will aid in getting them through this most trying time.”
In the first nine days, 98 people donated almost $5,500.
In Westport, Matthew Deos began a fund for a friend that raised far more than he ever expected
Best known in the folk magic community as “Houngan Matt” because of his talents as a traditional Haitian voodoo priest, Deos is the co-owner of Good Luck, a Westport shop that sells folk magic items. In mid-January, he learned that his friend Eddy Gutierrez of Los Angeles, also a folk magic priest, had died of a heart attack at age 38.
Gutierrez left his partner and mother. What money he had would be tied up in probate court. Funeral costs would have to be paid.
Deos posted a campaign.
“Originally I was thinking, ‘Let’s do $3,000 or $4,000 to see if we can help out a little bit,’ ” Deos said.
Nearly 300 donors responded. The total collected so far: $14,735. Most of the donations were under $50.
“Just about everybody who was a funder is somebody that knew Eddy personally,” Deos said.
That is always the key to success, according to experts and those who have used the sites.
Corinna West, 39, of Kansas City, Kan., is a spoken-word poet who competed for Team USA in judo at the 1996 Olympic Games. She used Kickstarter and Indiegogo to try to fund three previous projects, including a spoken-word DVD. But she suspects that in some campaigns, she might have set the goals too high.
“With Kickstarter, if you don’t make your goal, you don’t get anything,” she said.
Other crowdfunding platforms, however, allow individuals to retrieve whatever amount of money is given. The sites themselves make money by charging a fee, often 5 to 10 percent of the money raised.
In July, after West suffered a head injury from a bicycle fall, she set up a page called Olympic Brain Injury Recovery Fund on Indiegogo and set the goal at $775 to help with a few bills. She used other social media to get the word out.
“I wouldn’t recommend crowdfunding to anyone who doesn’t have a website, Twitter or Facebook,” West said.
So far, she has raised almost $1,900.
Damphousse of GoFundMe said the biggest misconception about his site is that it relies on strangers rushing in to donate to other strangers.
“That’s simply not the case,” he said.
Successful campaigns rely on a high level of trust, he said, that comes “because campaign organizers and their supporters personally know each other and have a connection to the campaign.”
To be sure, not all campaigns meet their goals.
Monika Witherspoon set a goal of $50,000 for Drew and her family. She looks at it as a crazy number now. A newcomer to crowdfunding, she set that goal because she had no idea how much the medical bills would eventually be.
Medicaid pays for most of Drew’s care, his operations. But it doesn’t pay for everything, like the $45 a day for physical or occupational therapy.
As a single mom, Witherspoon is the only one caring for Drew as he recovers, meaning that for the next several months she won’t be able to work as a hairdresser.
She doesn’t receive food stamps, so the family is not sure how it will pay for food or utilities or the $550 per month for rent. Most of the family’s relatives live in Wisconsin.
One option, of course, would be to move back to Wisconsin.
But Kansas City, North, is home.
With an A average in school, Drew is set to graduate in May and one day hopes to attend dental school.
“The reason we stay here is become my children love it here,” Witherspoon said. “I love it here. The school is the main thing; they have the All-American high school dream. They play basketball. They have amazing friends. We live in an amazing area.”
The right side of Drew’s skull is being kept on ice at the University of Kansas Hospital while he continues on antibiotics and any lingering infections disappear. The skull section or a prosthetic will be placed under his scalp once he is closer to being fully healed.
For now he wears a protective helmet and stays at home.
The $5,000 raised is already helping with necessities, Witherspoon said, as well as with therapy. Although the future is unclear, she remains more than grateful.
‘“Pretty much everybody on there (GoFundMe) I did know,” she said. “But there are quite a few I don’t know and will never know where they came from.
“It just goes to show that there are still good people in the world. You always hear the negative. I don’t think people know there are still good people in the world who pay it forward. I wish there was a way I could repay everybody. But thank you. I just want to say thank you.”
To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.