Campaign Initiated By OU Employee Generates Nearly $50K For Workers Affected By Athens Fire< < Back to
“We knew something was going on and the potential was there.”
That’s how Pete Shooner described the outpouring of emotion and support he and his wife witnessed on social media on Nov. 16 as they and countless other Athenians near and far responded to news of a multiple structure fire that tore through the northern block of West Union Street in uptown Athens.
The fire broke out in the early morning hours of Nov. 16. Thanks to the quick and heroic response from first responders and firefighters from throughout Athens County, there were no fatalities and only a handful of minor injuries. But in its wake, the fire had claimed all or portions of several West Union Street businesses, dealing a devastating blow to the businesses’ owners and the numerous area residents who were employed by them.
Shooner, who originally came to Athens to attend graduate school at Ohio University and this past summer began serving as associate director of communications for the Russ College of Engineering and Technology, and his wife, Bailey, spent much of Nov. 16 monitoring social media as details about the fire emerged. What also began to emerge was a desire to help those affected.
“Knowing how extensive the damage was, we knew something needed to be done and that people were going to be hurting,” Shooner said.
It was a suggestion from his wife that in that moment prompted Shooner to do something he had never done before but that he hoped would harness the compassion and community pride that was being expressed online. At 8:30 that evening, Shooner launched the Union Street Fire Employee Relief Fund on gofundme.com, a crowd-funding website.
Seven West Union Street businesses — Bobcat Rentals, Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery, Jack Neal Floral, Kismet, SmokeZone Smoke Shop, The Union, and Uptown Dog — were either completely destroyed or sustained significant damages in the blaze, leaving an estimated 70 workers either out of work or with reduced work hours with the winter and holiday seasons just around the corner. The relief fund established by Shooner set out with a goal of raising $10,000 to help those individuals.
“We really did just jump in not fully knowing how these campaigns are run or what to expect. But we know this community, and we definitely believe in its limitless capacity for giving and caring for its own,” Shooner said.
Within a week, the Union Street Fire Employee Relief Fund had raised more than $40,000, generating about $2,500 an hour at its peak the evening of Nov. 17.
“I honestly never imagined it would get as big as it did, as quickly as it did,” Shooner said. “This was truly a community effort. Setting the campaign up was the easy part.”
While gofundme.com does not provide Shooner with demographic information on the donors, he knows the generosity extends well beyond the Athens city limits.
“I know there have been donors from all over just from reading the comments people are sending along with their donations,” Shooner said, noting in particular the notes from Ohio University graduates who shared their memories of the community and the affected establishments. “It really makes your heart swell to know that even when people leave Athens they still take a part of it with them. I think that’s really powerful to know, and it makes you appreciate being here.”
Exactly three weeks after the Union Street Fire Employee Relief Fund was created, 811 individuals, businesses and organizations had donated $47,208 to the campaign — a show of support appreciated not only by the workers who will receive the funds but also by their employers.
“The business owners affected by this fire have so much to think about right now and countless things to do and worry about, but when I’ve talked to any of them, their No. 1 priority is getting their employees help, getting them money, getting them a job elsewhere — anything they can do,” Shooner said.
Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the Athens County Economic Development Council, echoed Shooner’s sentiments, sharing what she observed at an emergency meeting attended by city officials, business owners, and representatives from her office, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“From the very beginning, the businesses and landlords spoke little or nothing of their losses. They were focused on the people, their people,” she said. “At this meeting, the affected businesses were most concerned about their employees and how this would impact their livelihoods.”
Marrs-Maxfield said that during that meeting the business owners mentioned the gofundme campaign. Having experience in fund distribution in her role with the Economic Development Council and knowing Shooner through their work together with the Young Athens Professionals, Marrs-Maxfield offered to help with the campaign.
The business that had the most employees affected by the fire is Jackie O’s, which remains without its kitchen. In the fire’s aftermath, the business’s owner, Art Oestrike, was forced to lay off or reduce the hours of about 40 of his employees.
“It was terrible,” he said, “but they all understood.”
After a fellow Athens business owner alerted him to the fire, Oestrike, who teaches in OU’s Department of Linguistics, watched as firefighters spent the day battling the blaze — thankful that they were able to stop the inferno before it completely destroyed the business he built and that celebrated its ninth anniversary Friday.
“That evening we saw the gofundme campaign online, and we immediately reached out to Pete and Bailey to endorse it as a way to help a lot of the affected workers get through the holidays and things like that,” Oestrike said.
He noted that the community’s outpouring of support affirms the reason he has chosen to live in Athens.
“It speaks to the local nature and the community that we live in. There are not many places in the world where you a find a community where everyone’s tied in and wanting to work with each other through all the ups and downs life throws at us,” Oestrike said. “And I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all the people who reached out with their words and their pocketbooks to help our employees get through the holidays and this bump in the road for Jackie O’s.”
Since initiating the fundraising campaign, Shooner has been working with the affected business owners and others in the community to establish a disbursement plan for the funds. People’s Bank offered to open an account free of charge, and funds raised are being deposited directly into a community bank account there.
Shooner has partnered with Oestrike and Marrs-Maxfield, and together they are serving as administrators on the account. Individuals who were employed by the affected businesses and who have lost wages as a direct result of the fire are eligible to apply for relief funding, which is being allocated based on the individual’s loss (calculated by the number of work hours lost) compared to the total loss of all applicants. Withdrawal of funds from the account requires the signature of two out of the fund’s three administrators, and checks are being issued to affected employees this week.
“This campaign is going to make a huge impact, or rather head off a very devastating one, to those hard-working folks. I know that the appreciation is beyond words at this point,” Marrs-Maxfield said, adding that she is not surprised by the outpouring of support. “We are a very tight community. We have our different opinions and views, but when it comes down to it — when it really matters — we pull together. That’s what really defines us as a community.”
The gofundme campaign continues, and Shooner said he plans to keep the site up until the end of the year. The campaign’s goal currently stands at $50,000, but for Shooner, the goal, which has been raised three times, has already been met.
“I’d like to extend a genuine thanks from the bottom of my heart to everyone who took a leap of faith and donated to this campaign and to assure them that the money is in the process of being distributed in an especially fair and equitable way,” Shooner said. “The generosity shown through this fundraising effort is a really wonderful sign of the community that we have and that I am very proud and thankful to be a part of.”