Josette Melchor said she launched an online fundraising page “in a moment of desperation” on Saturday, a few hours after hearing about the warehouse fire in Fruitvale, when only nine people were confirmed dead.
Just five days later, when the Alameda County Coroner's Office has announced that 36 people died in that Oakland warehouse blaze, the page has gathered more than half a million dollars from more than 9,000 donors. That breaks down to about $14,000 for each victim’s family to cover funeral costs, medical bills, and other emergency expenses.
Melchor, founder of the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, never imagined that the campaign would exceed her original modest goal of $10,000 in only an hour.
“People didn’t have a place to direct their support,” she said. “I didn’t expect it to have this impact. But then again, I didn’t expect the size of this tragedy. I thought a lot of our friends would be found and rescued.”
While organizing to channel the outpouring of grief and compassion for the victims of the fire, Melchor and her organization are also grieving.
“The past five days (since the fire) has felt like a year,” she said.
Melchor said her San Francisco-based non-profit is working with the Oakland Mayor’s Office and the American Red Cross, which will be the first contact for victim’s families.
She sat down with city emergency officials and Red Cross officials on Tuesday. She said they suggested pooling the funds.
“It wasn’t a hard ask, just a suggestion,” she said. “But our community gave us the funding because they trust us to keep it in the community.”
The Gray Area Foundation for the Arts is no stranger to six-figure fundraising. The organization dealt with displacement in San Francisco’s South of Market, mid-Market and Tenderloin neighborhoods, before finally finding a home in the Mission. Melchor led a campaign to raise $450,000 to renovate the Grand, a single-screen Art Deco movie theater on Mission Street that had been used as a dime store for years. Gray Area now has an operating budget of $1.1 million.
Melchor and her board welcome advice and guidance on distributing the funds, promise to provide transparence and remain committed to making sure the donations stay in the community.
“We’re trying to figure out how to be sensitive to transgender people, people who may have been cast out by their families, the nuances of our community,” she said.
Melchor chose YouCaring to raise money online because the site charges lower fees for each donation. Many other crowdfunding and charity websites take a cut of anywhere from 3 to 10 percent. YouCaring still has to pay credit card processing fees, so donors can add those fees (30 cents plus 2.9 percent) to each donation.
The local Red Cross is handling donations from the three sports teams of $50,000 each, plus $75,000 from Sutter Health. With that funding, the YouCaring page set up by the Oakland Athletics has raised about $420,000 for those who lost loved ones, injured or displaced.
“This initial financial assistance helps for immediate emergency needs. The great thing about the A’s fund is that it’ll help them through the next stage of piecing lives together,” said Red Cross spokeswoman Cynthia Shaw.
The role of the Red Cross is to distribute emergency donations to clients, and provide meals, counseling to first responders at the site and at the family assistance center, Shaw said.
The Gray Area Foundation is a “well-known, reputable, engaging, and smart non-profit with a great team. They have the best of intentions. This community rallies together,” she added. “We shared some of our experiences and best practices. But it’s up to them to decide what’s fits the spirit of the funds they raised, the donor intent, and the mission of the organization.”
Melchor said the fundraising page will stay up as long as people want to give.