Friday, April 24, 2009

The risk of helping others hits close to home

My first front-page byline as a Mercury reporter was a story about a boy named Bobby Cook. Bobby Cook was a 4-year-old local boy battling leukemia. I was assigned to write about his illness, the difficulties of his family to pay medical expenses and his desire to vacation in Disney World.
Bobby’s grandmother owned a Pottstown luncheonette, and she had started a fund among her customers to send Bobby on the trip of his dreams. The cause came to the Mercury editor’s attention, and he assigned me the job of writing stories and inviting readers to send in money for the Bobby Cook Fund.
We collected checks and cash, turned it over to the family, and I chronicled for the front page Bobby’s departure from the Reading airport to Florida. The tale was one of those heartwarming stories that instill some humanity into the pages of our newspaper.
During those same early reporting years, The Mercury published another series of stories about the plight of a local family whose mother was suffering from a serious illness. We chronicled the father’s efforts to provide for his ailing wife and take care of their children. It was a poignant and sad tale of struggle, misfortune and the devastating effects on a family wrought by illness.
We started a newspaper fund to help the family, and donations poured in. Each day, a reporter was assigned to write an update about the fund and remind our readers of this family’s need.
But then we learned the truth about this particular family. The mother was ill, but the father was not struggling to provide for his children. Rather, he was using the money solicited and given in good faith to fund a lifestyle of expensive gifts for a girlfriend, and jewelry, hotels, dinners and gambling for himself.
The Mercury was then, as it is now, the kind of community newspaper that wants to help the downtrodden of the towns we cover. We want to believe that when people tell us their stories on the record and for publication that we can trust they are telling us the truth as best they can.
This experience hurt us as a staff and hurt our credibility. From that time on, we vowed to never collect money again for an individual. We will publicize a fund and tell a story of someone’s plight, but only if a fund has been set up independently of us. We will inform readers of that fund, but not solicit their generosity.
The exception is Operation Holiday.
We began Operation Holiday in 1991 to help children in needy families enjoy gifts and food at Christmastime. The fund has raised more than $1 million and has provided food and gifts for thousands of area children, averaging 400 children each year in as many as 175 families. Although our news staff coordinates the list of recipients, we partner with other social service agencies and accept their recommendations of deserving and needy families.
Each year, dozens of people call us and ask to be put on the “Santa-Christmas-Holiday” wish list. People write letters, call, come in the front door and tell us about themselves or their daughters or their brothers or their grandchildren, pleading, sometimes in tears, for help.
We say no. We tell people that they must go through an agency who can verify their circumstances before we will consider them.
In the 10 years that I have supervised the Operation Holiday list, I have made two or three exceptions to that rule. One of them was this year.
Jenna Esslinger wrote a letter asking us to publicize a spaghetti dinner fundraiser being held on her behalf at the Birdsboro Sportsman’s Club. She said she suffered from amyloidosis and was struggling as a single mom to pay medical bills and provide for her two young children. She fit the criteria for Operation Holiday and since there was already a fund established independently for her at Sovereign Bank, I made the decision to add her to our list. She was interviewed for an on-the-record story by a reporter, and we were aware that The Reading Eagle newspaper had also done extensive interviews with her for a column and video on their Web site.
When the Operation Holiday items were distributed, Jenna Esslinger came in as requested to pick up two $75 gift cards for gifts for her children. But when it was time to get the food, it took four phone calls over two days to get a response. That concerned us.
Then, about a month ago, a detective called to say she was under investigation for charities fraud. Last week, she was arrested and charged with misappropriating $12,000 by publicly claiming an illness she did not have.
Like that story of the philandering father three decades ago, our trust – and the trust of our readers – has been violated. As a result, there will be no more individuals or exceptions on our list in the future.
Of the $12,000 Jenna Esslinger collected, only $150 was from Operation Holiday, and as gift cards, it may have been for gifts for her children. We don’t know. But we are concerned that by publicizing her story, we added to her alleged crime.
The greater victims in this travesty though are the people who have real needs, but whose stories will not be believed and whose trust will not be honored in the future.
Helping others always carries with it the danger of helping those who take advantage. Sadly, we have learned this lesson yet again.

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Blogger I learned something today said...

Dear Nancy and Staff,

Great things always come with risks. Whenever I send a donation, or offer help somewhere, I do it conciously of my own volition, yet knowing that there are inherent problems that could arise from them. For example,the myriad of return address labels and solicitations that come after one donation to a SINGLE organization! The bottom line is, that we choose to help. It only proves greater,however, the sincerity of The Mercury and staff that you have taken the time to write about abuses that have occurred at The Mercury. Frankly, as a reader who is not generally a skeptical person, your record for 30 years seems quite good! I think I would rather know that I helped many, and was the victim of a few, than that I had never helped at all. For this, The Mercury should be proud, hold its head high, and as you stated, continue to be cautious, but also continue to help. Thank you for the community concerns that you share daily, and the help that you give annually.
Jane Perkins

April 26, 2009 at 11:55 AM 

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