When Matthew Watkins returned to work in Springfield after the tornado that hit the area in early June, he knew he had to do something.
Watkins, whose Quincy PR group Watkins Strategies had been working in the area since November, recalled leaving work one day and returning to a town half in shambles – dozens of homes flattened to the ground, with piles of rubble not half a mile from the construction site on which he was working.
“You take one ride through those neighborhoods and you realize people left their houses one day and came home to find everything they owned completely destroyed,” Watkins said. “Myself and my employees and some of us other contractors we work with we said what can we do to get these people back on their feet?”
It was the beginning of a fundraising effort that would grow even larger than Watkins anticipated.
Now, less than two months later, the team has helped donate $8,500 to help victims of the disaster.
The money was matched by the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation and will be donated to the United Way for the Massachusetts Statewide Disaster Relief Fund along with $205,131 in additional money from the Patriots and the Kraft family.
For Watkins and other contractors, including PAR Electrical Contractors Inc., Longfellow
Drilling, McVac Environmental Services Inc., Quanta Energized Services, and The Spear
Group, donating to the cause was a no brainer.
“We had the money raised in a week and a half,” Watkins said. “Everyone was quick to help because we’re so close to what happened there. They have all witnessed it first hand themselves.”
As they were collecting the money, the effort became aware of the Kraft family and the Patriots Foundation’s commitment to match up to $100,000 of funds donated to United Way for disaster relief through United Way/Mass2-1-1.
Although the Patriot’s fund had already exceeded their $200,000 goal by the time Watkins group came on board, the $17,000 in additional money will go a long way towards program services for the victims of the tornado.
In fact, 100 percent of the collected money will help to assist and coordinate for the unmet needs of the disaster survivors in the Commonwealth, Watkins said.
“We are proud to be partnered in this effort with the United Way as well as with those in the business community and the individuals who have joined the effort to help the families and communities in central and western Massachusetts ravaged by the tornadoes,” Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft said in a release. “That the response has been so overwhelming makes us proud, once again, to be members of this community.”
Although the fundraising effort has far exceeded its goal, Dora Robinson, United Way of Pioneer Valley president, was quick to point out that the area is still in need.
"On Monday almost 4000 individuals had already filed for FEMA assistance. Its an indicator of the very broad need," Robinson said.
According to Robinson, who was confident that the fundraising efforts would be as successful as they were, there are still substantial needs two months after the event.
"Even though we’ve closed our emergency shelters in a lot of the communities that were affected, we’re still dealing with families that are in temporary living places, like motels, that still need to be transitioned to permanent and affordable housing," she said.
Additionally, United Way is looking to use fundraised money for families where FEMA money provided that doesn't match the total loss. Soon, the organization will also look towards school supplies for displaced children, clothing needs for school uniforms, and even winter clothes for families who lost everything.
Robinson suspects it will be a full year before majority of these people get back on their feet.
It was a reality Watkins associated with.
“We had our money raised right around the Forth of July, and I said to my employees, everyone is thinking what they will put on the grill this weekend, and these people still don’t have a house to come back to,” Watkins said. “I think the more we can do [the better] … this is a reminder that there is still a critical need there.”
Yet things are starting to look up for some families in the city. Rebuilding efforts are beginning to take place, and new houses are being erected where there used to be just piles of stone.
The rebuilding effort is even inspiring others.
“It inspired two of my employees who are from the Springfield areas, and are active in that area as well, so in addition to fundraising efforts they are also trying to spread the word and are continuing to help out,” Watkins said.
It is an event that has helped bring people together, Watkins said.
“The resiliency and the can-do attitude of the impacted communities has been inspiring, and we are happy to be part of this team effort,” he said.
Those wishing to donate can visit http://www.uwotc.org/disaster or can call 2-1-1.