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He's been on both sides of rainbow

LOCKPORT -- Fundraising events for people with catastrophic medical bills are an all-too-common occurrence these days.

Robert MacFarlane, of Newfane, knows all about it -- from both sides.

MacFarlane's then-16-year-old daughter was paralyzed in an auto accident in May 1997. Friends put together a fundraiser for her in 1998, and the experience got MacFarlane thinking.

Today, MacFarlane, 58, is president of Rainbow of Help, an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization that specializes in putting together fundraising events to help those facing the same type of situation MacFarlane did -- crushing medical bills insurance won't pay.

The group, formed in 1999, has about 24 members today. It sets up a few events in Niagara County each year, with more than 20 held in its history. Those events have raised a total of $369,000, counting matching funds from Thrivent Financial, the Lutheran financial organization that partners with Rainbow of Help. More information about the group's services can be found online at www.rainbowofhelp.com.

MacFarlane said Rainbow's next fundraiser is scheduled from 2 to 8 p.m. Nov. 8 in the Sanborn Fire Company hall for a 3-year-old Wilson boy.

>Whose idea was Rainbow of Help?

It first began when my daughter was injured in an auto accident when she was 16 years old, and she's paralyzed from the waist down. We needed a handicap van for her, so my mother and a bunch of friends put together a fundraiser for us in March of '98. We had a friend of ours who was in Wrights Corners Fire Company who kind of put that fundraiser together, and then there was a gentleman in Newfane who was in a car accident and lost both his legs, and they put together a fundraiser for him. We kind of all stuck together. Over the years, we've just kind of picked up people as we went along and decided in '99 to form the group. We incorporated in 2000, so we're a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit.

>How many fundraisers do you organize in a year?

Last year was our busiest year; we did four. This year, we're doing our second one next month. Last year was an extremely challenging year. We've gotten to the point where we've got enough people in the group where we can coordinate two simultaneously.

>Do you have dues?

We're a 100 percent volunteer organization. There's no charge for our help. There is an application process that every potential recipient has to go through. We have a review committee that reviews every application, and they bring it back to the group as a whole with a recommendation. There's a stipulation in our bylaws that our mission statement is helping people with unexpected medical expenses.

>What's the benefit for people calling you instead of trying to put an event together themselves?

The reason people call us is they don't know what to do. They know they need a fundraiser for their relative or friend, and they have no idea how to go about it. If their application is reviewed and approved, we walk them through the process from Point A to Point Z. We work with them throughout the time prior to the benefit, and the day of the benefit we coordinate all the activities. We show up en masse, because we feel that the day of the fundraiser people should be able to mingle and talk to their family and friends that come to support them.

>You guys don't get a cut for expenses?

No, it's 100 percent volunteer. There's no money that changes hands. . . . It usually takes three months to put one of these things together. The final month, we meet every week with [the family]. We're always available to them over the phone or by e-mail.

>What about this event on Nov. 8?

This is for little Tommy Williams. He's a little 3-year-old boy who had a reaction to childhood vaccines, and he now has Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome, the severest form of epilepsy. The family has set up a supplemental needs trust because, at 3 years old, unless something changes, he's never going to walk or talk. That family needs a handicap van to transport him. They have a specialized chair, but it's so hard to get it in and out of the family vehicle. It's pretty tough stuff. [The pasta dinner at the Sanborn Fire Hall that day costs $8 for adults, $5 for children. Also, checks made out to "Tommy's Team" may be dropped at any Citizens Bank branch].

>What's the key to a good fundraiser?

Networking, and family and friends' participation. You've got to have that. We've developed sources over the years for some of the food items. We cook the food. We supply all the paper products for the event, all the permits. We have a trailer that was actually donated last year by my sister's boyfriend, a travel trailer that we carry all our equipment in.

>What's the most successful type of fundraiser?

We usually have a pasta dinner. We have a basket auction, we have live auctions, we have 50-50s. We don't charge admission. There's a cost for the dinner, which leaves it open. If people want to eat, they eat. If they don't, they come for the auctions. The key to our fundraisers is, we tell the family right up front, we want everything donated. We base everything on 100 percent donations -- the baskets, everything. We don't pay for anything. We don't want the family to pay for anything, so all the proceeds raised go directly to the recipient for the medical expenses they've incurred. . . . Over the last 10 years, we've been really lucky. We've been able to get everything donated.

>Obviously you guys have expenses. Do you do fundraisers for yourselves?

We do pancake breakfasts and things like that. We have other clubs who have donated to us because they know the type of work that we do, which helps pay our yearly insurances and registration on the trailer and the paper products. We have beneficiaries, too; any money that we raise [beyond expenses], we try to give back, . . . so we've donated to Mercy Flight, Make-a-Wish, Hospice and other groups.

>What's the most you ever raised for someone at one of your events?

I believe back in 2002 -- I'm not exactly sure of the date, because we've done so many -- the one fundraiser was over $40,000. Last year we did one in Frontier Fire Hall for a gentleman who was critically ill and raised more than $35,000.

>Have all your events been in Niagara County?

That's one of the things we decided. We've done a couple out of the county, but after we met and talked about it, we decided we wanted to center on Niagara County because there's so much need in the county.

>How does one go about joining the group?

We meet the first Monday of every month at First Baptist Church in Newfane. There's a $10-a-year fee to join. That helps pay for our insurances and stuff.

>If people had better health insurance, would there be a need for your services?

A lot of people have health insurance, but [big expenses] aren't covered. The last one we just finished, the gentleman had health insurance but it wasn't covering the costs of the sickness he had. There were a lot of bills above and beyond what was covered, which you run into a lot these days. And a lot of people don't have health insurance.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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