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GoFundMe website helps funding local worthy causes
Family, friends can contribute to summer camp tuition or chemotherapy treatment
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Brothers Angel Benitez, 10, and Christian Benitez, 11, construct a robot Thursday, which they received for Christmas. Christian Benitez and his family are using GoFundMe to raise money for him to go to a summer camp because it made it easy for family members and friends to make donations. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Area resident's GoFundMe campaigns

Christian Benitez: www.gofundme.com/jo8o7g

Sarabi: www.gofundme.com/jnzx1s

Becky Wilson: www.gofundme.com/beckywilson

Not every 11-year-old boy spends his time thinking about how to stop a dangerous oil spill.

“I figured, why should you come up with something to manage (oil tank spills), when you can make sure it can’t happen?” said Christian Benitez, a fifth-grade student at Centennial Arts Academy in Gainesville. “I decided to come up with a tank with an engine for the oil tankers where they wouldn’t be using oil, they’d be using water.”

Benitez has thought long and hard about his design.

“I’d call the engine ‘The Shark,’ where the engine uses water as energy just like how fish use water as air,” Benitez said.

The invention of ‘The Shark’ isn’t just a childhood fancy. It is part of the Creative Resolutions of Impending Situations with Intelligent Solutions summer camp, which is sponsored through the Duke University Talent Identification Program.

Based on his Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores in math and reading, Benitez was recently invited to attend the summer program, which will focus on a theoretical oil spill. He will travel to a university and stay for a week with other bright children his age and take courses to solve the problem.

Benitez wants to attend the CRISIS sub-program for environmental engineering.

“I like (engineering) because you can build something that does help,” the 11-year-old said. “Like if you design it, that’s one thing. But if you can make it, that’s another.”

When Benitez’s mother, Jessica Gomez, found out about the summer camp’s $2,000 price tag, she turned to the fundraising website GoFundMe.com to help her son achieve his goal. Since Gomez started the campaign Jan. 4, they’ve raised $750 of their $2,000 goal.

Gomez and her son are only a few of the Northeast Georgia residents who have recently turned to GoFundMe.com to crowd-source what might seem like a daunting financial goal.

Long-distance giving

The most successful GoFundMe accounts of all time are the stuff of viral video legend and tear-jerking Today Show segments. In 2014, the website helped the family of a terminally ill young girl to raise $1,834,090 for an experimental treatment from 33,630 donors. The same year, the site helped raise more than $800,000 for Boston Marathon Bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the deadly attack. Campaigns such as those unite strangers from the world over, but perhaps the most useful aspect of GoFundMe is its ability to unite family and friends who are only a few states apart.

Tasha Barrett Hamil, a teacher at Riverview Elementary School in Dawsonville, started a GoFundMe campaign for her co-worker, Becky Wilson. Wilson was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and needed to come up with $5,000 for chemotherapy.

“(Wilson) is a single mom in Dawsonville and has a lot of family and friends (who) are outside of our state,” Hamil said. “We have a lot of fundraisers that we’re going to be doing for her, but GoFundMe was a way that her out-of-town family and friends could participate as well.”

Since creating the campaign Dec. 31, it has raised $1,870 of its $5,000 goal.

The GoFundMe website also helped Christian Benitez’s family come together across state and international lines.

“His aunt and uncle who are actually in Abu Dhabi donated some, but basically it helps everybody in the family participate,” Gomez said. “Everybody in the family can help him do something that he wants to do.”

The desire to reach a bigger audience, not just family and friends, is what propels others to join GoFundMe. 

Heather Cheesman and her husband, both employees of Sugar Hill Animal Hospital in Sugar Hill, started a GoFundMe campaign for an injured dog brought into the animal hospital and taken in by Cheesman’s sister. The dog, named Sarabi, had a variety of health problems that were going to cost thousands.

“They found (Sarabi) below Atlanta,” Cheesman said. “She was so skinny she couldn’t even hold her own body up.”

Cheesman started the GoFundMe campaign Jan. 4. It has since raised more than $1,000 of its $5,000 goal.

“My husband had heard a lot of great things about GoFundMe, so that’s why we went that way, just thinking that it would get on a bigger level,” Cheesman said. “Just a wider range for trying to help my sister out.”

Cheesman, Gomez and Hamil have all promoted their respective GoFundMe campaigns through email and on Facebook. “Facebook can get everything everywhere,” Gomez said.

How does it work?

Anyone can start a GoFundMe campaign on the organization’s website. A Facebook account isn’t required to create a campaign, but connecting the campaign to a valid Facebook user is required for it to appear on the website’s public directory. Donations can be made as easily as one would make any other purchase on the Internet. And while every cause needs a name, the website allows donors to remain anonymous if they choose.

But the fundraising efforts aren’t totally free of strings. GoFundMe deducts a 5 percent fee from each donation a campaign receives. A 3 percent processing fee is also charged per donation.

Therefore, when an individual donates $100, the beneficiary will receive $92 and the website will receive $8.

There are ways to circumvent the charges, which only start to add up when deducted from large donations. The vast majority of donations on an average GoFundMe account range from $20-$50.

“Unless you have the full amount in one transaction, it’s really not going to be that much of a difference,” Gomez said. “We went over our total basing it on what was going to be taken away for their usage fees.”

Hamil, who has previously served as the chairman of the Relay for Life committee in Dawson County, said the 5 percent and 3 percent charges can be negligible compared to other charitable organizations.

“I’ve done a lot of fundraising for other people, and I’ve gotten away from more organized organizations because of their overhead cost and where the money actually goes,” Hamil said. “I know that (the GoFundMe donations) went right into Becky’s account. Even though the fees were almost 10 percent of what we raised, there wasn’t anything else that was hidden.”

After processing, donations can be sent directly to a beneficiary’s bank account.

Success stories

When Wilson went to start chemotherapy Jan. 5, she hadn’t reached the $5,000 goal she needed to start treatment. But her insurance company allowed her to begin the procedure with a $500 payment — a payment she made with funds taken out of her GoFundMe account.

Another benefit is GoFundMe does not have an end date. The website’s campaigns can remain active indefinitely while most traditional fundraisers have a set period fundraising time.

No matter the duration of Wilson’s treatment, she can continue to collect funds as long as donors continue to supply them.

“(Wilson) is not able to work anymore for the rest of the year because she’s around kids as a teacher, so she’ll be on long-term disability now with only 60 percent of her income,” Hamil said.

While some might be suspicious of GoFundMe, or Internet giving in general, the willingness to try something new may mean the world to a mother undergoing chemotherapy, an animal that has been abandoned and left to die or a young boy who wants to expand his horizons.

That same spirit of adventure will hopefully propel Christian Benitez to his summer camp and even more exciting opportunities after that.

“I want go to because I like to move around places,” Benitez said. “Why would you want to stay in one place and know everything when you could challenge yourself with something you don’t know? And I like challenges.”

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