Finding funds

When three strokes put 23-year-old Lindsay Jones, of Denham Springs, into a coma early last year, it didn’t take long for her family to feel a financial as well as an emotional hit.

Even after she awakened, she has had heart surgery and four operations on her left eye, and has needed constant care. Her mother, Kirk M. Jones, left her teaching job to do that. Although insurance covered most expenses, medical bills came to about $22,000.

So, friends did what friends do. A neighbor held a jambalaya fundraisers. Cadillac Caf√© and Chili’s Grill and Bar held benefits. But the Joneses also have gotten help from a source that wouldn’t have been available four years earlier.

The Internet.

Desiree Vargas and Ethan Austin founded GiveForward.com in 2008 after searching and discovering no fundraising websites except those connected to nonprofit organizations. At first, they opened the site to any fundraising issue, but as other sites sprang up with similar goals, they narrowed the focus to medical fundraising in 2009.

Since then, several other medical fundraising sites have come along. Fortunately or unfortunately — depending on which side of the website you’re on — there is enough need for many sites to thrive.

“We’re really changing the conversation about medical bills,” Vargas said. “Five years ago, medical costs were such a private thing that families suffered. It’s the cause of 62 percent of bankruptcies, and every 30 seconds a family in the U.S. goes bankrupt because of medical debt.

“So, it really is this universal problem that was so private, and I think now because of social media and because of sites like GiveForward, people are more willing to share the financial situation they’re in because of the illness, and they’re more willing to ask for help, and I think it’s really helping to bring friends and family together from all over the world that wasn’t possible before.”

Such sites have raised millions of dollars for thousands of people with medical needs, including several in the area. Hallie Overfield, of Zachary, who was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma late last year, and Blake McKee, of Baton Rouge, who was severely injured in a hit-and-run accident on Nov. 4, also have campaigns on GiveForward. A similar effort is being held for Anthony Ruiz Jr., a New Orleans 14-year-old who was diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma in June, on YouCaring.com. He is still undergoing chemotherapy.

Ruiz was visiting a grandmother in Florida when he became sick and, after going to the emergency room, his lymphoma was discovered. His mother, Letty Gonzales, said Medicaid is covering all of his medical expenses now that he has returned home, but the same is not true for the testing and other medical bills from Florida.

“No matter how many times I call, they’re just not helping me at all,” Gonzales said. “They’re just, like, ‘No, it’s $16,000.’ ‘OK, right now I’m not even working — can’t work — because I’m taking care of my son. How am I going to pay for this?’ It doesn’t matter. I didn’t realize I was going to have that.”

As often is the case, the medical needs that caused these expenses arose unexpectedly. Neither family was familiar with online fundraising resources.

Jones, however, had a friend, Leann Smith, who suggested using GiveForward. Such sites allow people to set up a page explaining their need and provide a link for online donations and words of support.

“My husband, it is just killing him,” Kirk M. Jones said. “He doesn’t believe in this. I said, ‘I don’t know what else to do, but it’s for my child.’ I had to quit teaching. I was a schoolteacher. If I was still able to make the money, I would not be doing it.”

Having a family friend or a relative outside the immediate family spearhead the fundraiser is often one of the keys to success, Vargas said.

“We’ve seen that when patients try to raise money for themselves, it feels too much like they’re asking for charity, so they’re not as aggressive in their fundraising efforts,” she said. “Also, when you’re in the middle of either caring for someone who is going through a serious illness or you are going through it yourself, you really need to be focused on getting better. You shouldn’t be focusing on the money part of things.”

Online fundraising sites handle their end of the money differently. GiveForward charges clients 7 percent of the monies raised for its expenses. In addition to managing the site itself, Vargas said GiveForward assigns a fundraising coach to help each client get the most out of each campaign. GiveForward doesn’t send donations to the client until the campaign ends, in part as a safeguard for donors in case a campaign turns out to be fraudulent.

YouCaring, founded last year, doesn’t charge clients, raising its money through donations, said CEO Brock Ketcher. The donations go to clients immediately.

“We’re dealing with some very serious causes,” Ketcher said. “We’re dealing with deaths and very, very, very serious illnesses. Speaking for myself, it would be very difficult to charge for something like that. For us to give it away for free is just a huge blessing for us. It’s just a wonderful feeling to be able to help these people. We have people on here who raise a hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand dollars.”

The campaigns for Jones and Ruiz aren’t asking nearly so much, and some of the benefits of the online effort have been intangible. In addition to money, people can give online expressions of support.

“I think it’s made me feel better inside, and her, too, because to look and to see who really cares,” Kirk M. Jones said.