South Floridians look to crowdfunding to finance causes close to their hearts

 

bdupuy@MiamiHerald.com

When Amor Sierra, the “Tattoo Mama” of Miami Beach, wanted to give back to the community, she turned to what she knew best: tattoos.

After opening her tattoo business in 2013, Sierra began helping victims of sex-trafficking get rid of tattoos that their captors and pimps had branded them with.

She doesn’t charge for her services.

But she has a unique way of funding her mission: She is seeking $15,000 through the crowdfunding website, GoFundMe.com.

Crowdfunding allows anyone to go online and raise money for a cause, from funerals to surgery to family emergencies. Since 2010, around four million people worldwide have raised more than $330 million through the site.

About $4.2 million has been raised by 4,391 campaigns from 49,314 donors within 50 miles of Miami, said Kelsea Little, a spokeswoman for GoFundMe.

“GoFundMe is very popular in the South Florida area,” Little said in an email.

Florida International University professor Donna Weir-Soley created a GoFundMe page for her 43-year-old brother, Franklyn, who lives with sickle cell disease.

After visiting her brother in Jamaica, Weir-Soley found him bedridden and in desperate need of medical help. His hip bone “had been completely eaten away” by the red blood cell disease, she said.

Weir-Soley realized she couldn’t support her brother by herself. She turned to GoFundMe.

“I wanted to be able to whip $5,000 out of thin air and give it to him,” she said. “I wasn’t able to [afford] it.”

She hopes to raise $15,000 to get Franklyn hip-replacement surgery, home care, a new bathroom, a wheelchair and a wheelchair ramp.

She already has raised more than $1,900. While some of that money came from close friends and family, some is from donors she has never met.

“It’s really wonderful that the are people out there who want to help a genuine cause,” she said.

Last month, Jessica Vaughn, 22, took a dip with some friends in the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale when a shark bit her. As a server at Bru’s Room in Sunrise, she did not have insurance to pay for her hospital bill, reconstructive surgery or therapy. But as of Tuesday she had raised $10,281 from 203 contributors via her GoFundMe page. Her goal is $45,000.

Users collect their GoFundMe donations through PayPal or WePay payment processing accounts.

To discourage scammers, GoFundMe lets users add a photo, name and number of Facebook friends to their pages, but sometimes that isn’t enough.

When an Oregon teen died in a car accident, a scammer used a GoFundMe account to cash in on the teen’s death.

“It’s not feasible for GoFundMe to investigate the claims stated by each campaign organizer,” GoFundMe states on its website. “Rather, we provide visitors with the tools to make an informed decision as to who they choose to support.”

GoFundMe users typically include a summary of why they created their accounts. These personal stories often go into great detail about the troubles or tragedies they or their loved ones are experiencing.

Noeris Gil, 24, of Miami, first used GoFundMe to raise money for a mission trip to China. When her uncle died, she decided to use it again to help pay for his funeral.

A day after she created the page, Gil, said, donations started to pour in. She eventually raised $1,435 for the funeral.

“We’re really grateful,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do all the arrangements.”

Every dollar does count, although Carlos Calle, 24, Miami said he will not be satisfied unless he meets his GoFundMe goal of $64,000.

Calle is crowdfunding for his cousin, Andres, who lives in Colombia. Andres’ left leg had to be amputated after a biking accident. Calle wants to get Andres enough money to buy the prosthesis he needs.

“This website has given him hope,” Calle said.

Crowdfunding websites gained nationwide attention after last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, when several accounts were created for victims of the tragedy.

YouCaring and Indiegogo offer similar outlets for personal fund-raising.

Agatha Caraballo, digital instructor in Florida International University’s Department of Public Administration, has seen crowdfunding used to support libraries and animal shelters in South Florida.

“You’re reaching a large audience with relatively little or no cost,” she said.

To bring traffic to crowdfunding accounts, fundraisers use social media to promote their causes.

The GoFundMe page of Sierra, the “Tattoo Mama,” is three months old. Her account has more than $750. She would like to be able to fly in a sex-trafficking victim who was branded on her neck.

Fund-raising is only part of the process that helps break the chain that ties sex-trafficking victims to their captors, she said.

“We can help these girls move on,” she said.

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