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Andy Larsen: How I distributed $55K sent to me by everyday Utahns to help others

(Courtesy photo) The Kearns High School food pantry was one recipient of donations from the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade.

What do you do when you suddenly have $54,972 in your Venmo account?

I faced that situation in the wake of my accidental fundraising efforts right before Thanksgiving. I was looking to give away $165 in spare change to a family or two in need and my tweet went viral, resulting in the most stunning social media night of my life. People started sending me money. I ended up garnering nearly $55K from 992 people. It was insane.

I referred to this special group of online donors as the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade, a weird name, but one that stuck.

But as the Peter Parker principle states, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Now it was up to me to distribute that money to the best of my ability. This wasn’t a Tribune project, though my colleagues have been a big support. Instead, I took on this whirlwind of a task with a few volunteer advisers. It has been depressing at times, hugely rewarding at others.

A few weeks later, I’m about 99% done distributing the money, and I wanted to share with the Brigade and the public how much good we were able to do.

Just like with COVID numbers, basketball stats, and everything else, I wanted to be very analytical about where the money was going. So naturally, here’s the breakdown — including a big surprise near the end.

Aid Brigade goals

In the end, I had two goals:

1. Do the very most good that I reasonably could with ~$55K.

2. Donate it in a manner consistent with what people expected when they sent me money in the first place: directly helping people in Utah who were in need.

My original tweet asked for a couple of families to raise their hands and ask for help, which then unexpectedly led others to send me money presumably under the assumption it would go to that purpose. And as the tweet exploded, garnering donations, it also meant that more and more families in need saw it. Overall, I received 192 messages asking for help, and most were people who sought assistance for a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, or a real life or social media friend. It was heartening to see people look out for each other. Even some who were nominated for support asked instead for money to go to others.

I did my best to verify the stories I was told, typically through conversations with those asking and light social media research. The vast majority checked out, though in a few cases, I found that people weren’t who they said they were. It’s possible some of the money won’t really go to the places the recipients said it would. Ultimately, though, I would bet that a larger percentage of the money went to real needs than many big-name charities, which lose some percentage of donations to administrative costs. In contrast, my Venmo account and I worked for free.

I ended up breaking the requests into seven major groups.

Thanksgiving dinner

Example recipients:

• A family living on the Navajo reservation in Utah who lost a son to COVID-19.

• A family short on funds after a house fire.

• A college student who was saving to pay for school, and couldn’t head home for Thanksgiving due to pandemic best practices.

My original tweet asked people if they needed help providing Thanksgiving for their families. Eleven families needed help and the average Thanksgiving dinner is about $50. I adjusted some depending on some specific asks for a total of $582.

Christmas presents

Example recipients:

• A laid off airline employee.

• A single mom of three attending nursing school, working and studying long hours.

• An RSL employee who was laid off during the pandemic.

This is our largest category by number of donations and money delivered. We ended up helping 64 families and about 255 people (mostly kids) with Christmas gifts. We helped one group of more than 50 cancer recovery patients with gifts that counted as one ask, but the rest were families in need. All told, we spent $13,560.

Why were they in need? Some found themselves short of money due to employment issues. Some were COVID-related. Some face the reality that minimum wage in Utah isn’t enough to provide both shelter and Christmas presents for a family. Some had medical bills, or a household breadwinner suddenly wasn’t available to help. Whatever the reason, we wanted to give everyone who legitimately asked a Christmas worth celebrating.

Groceries

Example recipients:

College student whose financial aid ran out and lost her restaurant job during the pandemic.

• Part-time Vivint Arena worker who lost income due to no Jazz games or concerts.

• Lehi family facing a legion of medical and employment difficulties.

Obviously, people need to eat. We helped nine families with grocery money, and altered the size of the gift depending on the number of people in the family and the amount of their immediate need. We helped nine families for a total of $1,632.

Rent

Example recipients:

• A family of four from Rose Park who had to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, losing out on paychecks.

• A man who previously got his income from Uber/Lyft driving full time, but the pandemic has cratered demand.

• A ballet teacher facing potential homelessness after her ballet studio canceled classes.

We weren’t able to necessarily help every family out with all of their rent payments, but tried to meet people where their need was, sending messages back and forth to determine how much they owed, how close they were to paying it, and the consequences of not doing so. Ultimately, we helped 15 families with $11,486 in rent payments, our second-largest category in terms of money spent.

Bereavement

Example recipients:

• The family of a man who passed away due to colon cancer.

• An Ogden family dealing with the loss of a parent who died of COVID-19.

• The family of a military veteran who died from prostate cancer.

The death of a loved one can cause financial issues in many households. While I was wary of helping families fund funerals in pandemic times, I also understand that death can mean the loss of an income as well. Again, we helped true need to the best of our ability, seven families assisted for a total of $1,331.

Bills

Example recipients:

• A live event sound engineer who has gone without work since March.

• A nurse who couldn’t afford a car repair while paying for daycare for her child.

A Magna family with a $900 power bill.

It’s true: they really had a $900 power bill, which we paid off. This “Bills” category was kind of a catch-all for all sorts of assorted bills that needed paying: power bills, water bills, car repair, appliance repair, legal bills, the like. We had three families dealing with house fires that we were able to help out. Overall, this was 26 families for a total of $7,769 in donations.

Medical bills

(Provided photo) Jared Mortensen was among the recipients of donation funds from the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade, after their premature baby spent significant time in the NICU.

Example recipients:

A family who just had a premature boy born at 30 weeks, necessitating long-term NICU care (picture above).

• An uninsured man who suffered a major stroke, requiring weeks of recovery in a hospital.

• A southern Utah police officer who suffered a brain tumor.

I saved this category for last because it was the most eye-opening for me — the level of medical debt in Utah is staggering. I had families reach out with medical debts between $5,000 and $200,000. Overall, I estimated that it was about $1 million in debt between the 28 families asking for support.

This is insane. As powerful as the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade has proven to be, it isn’t the answer to this problem: I could have donated the entire sum to one family and only put a small dent in their gargantuan bills. For many people, their only prayer is the charity of others through GoFundMe, which is a wholly inefficient way to deal with a problem — no one’s medical or financial survival should be predicated on having rich friends.

Before the pandemic, 33% of working Americans said they had medical debt, and 28% of those owe over $10,000 each. The situation is undoubtedly worse now. A huge swath of America is in financial ruin. There just has to be a better system (I’m looking at you politicians).

Trying to get the best bang for my buck, I partnered with a charity called RIP Medical Debt, an organization founded in 2014 by two former medical debt collection executives.

In particular, they buy bundles of debt from collection agencies. And then they just forgive it. They just write it off.

They write people who used to owe thousands a letter letting them know what happened, the recipients nearly immediately see their credit scores improve. Debt collectors no longer call and hassle. The debt is just... gone.

But because these huge medical debts are a hassle to collect and bought in bulk, RIP Medical Debt can generally pay less than $1 for every $100 of debt they forgive. In other words, if the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade donated $10,000 to their Utah campaign, we’d end up forgiving about $1 million of Utah medical debt.

So we did.

Ultimately, RIP Medical Debt estimates that our donation will forgive debt for 400-500 Utah families, which is extremely cool. You can also contribute at ripmedicaldebt.org/campaign/utah/.

Of course, these are unlikely to be the same families who reached out to me for help, and I wanted to be sure to help them in some way; maybe not their medical bill, but perhaps helping out with Christmas or another, smaller bill. We sent them $200 each.

Other charities

Finally, to wrap things up, we ended up helping a few other charities, thanks to suggestions from Twitter followers and Tribune subscribers. In particular, we sent $500-$1,000 to:

• The Kearns High School food pantry, which was slated to run short of food in a matter of days. They give groceries directly to west side families in need.

• The Salt Lake Valley COVID Mutual Aid group, which provides grocery, prescription, household supplies and cash assistance up to $50 to those who need it.

• The clever Nourish to Flourish program, which meets the need of those with food insecurity through discount meals provided by Salt Lake City restaurants. That, in turn, provides guaranteed demand for restaurants trying to stay open.

• The nurses at McKay Dee Hospital, who, a source said, were absolutely “exhausted and depleted due to the pandemic.” We’re giving them gifts hoping to provide some measure of emotional relief — it will depend on the individual nurse what the gift is.

Of course, there were many good charity options we weren’t able to help in the name of providing direct assistance to the families who requested it. While $55K is a lot of money to you and me, it obviously isn’t sufficient to address everything.

In all, it’s looking like we were able to help about 1,000 Utah families this holiday season, running the full gamut from basic necessities like food, water, and shelter to providing Christmas gifts for loved ones. The logistics have been occasionally difficult — I wouldn’t recommend someone do this on Venmo, which has significant restrictions on how much money can be sent in a given time period — but we’ve made it all work.

Most of all, I want to give a big thanks to all who donated. You guys made a special thing happen and changed the lives of many Utahns. This is a special place to live, and you all showed why.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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