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MARKETPLACE:  Auto | Jobs | People Search | Personals | Travel | Yellow Pages  December 24, 2004
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Small funds raise hundreds of thousands for fire victims
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ A televised rock concert designed to raise money for victims of The Station nightclub fire brought together famous musicians at a top venue.

The result: an event that helped survivors and victimsďż˝ families cope with the devastating fire, but just $3,800 for those it touched.

An Associated Press survey of dozens of fund-raisers stemming from the Feb. 20 fire shows hundreds of events drawing hundreds of thousands of dollars _ but the smaller, more intimate affairs tend to bring in more cash than the events surrounded by public fanfare.

The Narragansett Lions Club, for example, pulled in $33,000 for fire survivors and victimsďż˝ families with a single-night event featuring a band and silent auction. A fund-raiser held by the family of one victim netted $18,000 for The Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund.

The survey, based on random telephone calls placed to organizers of several dozen publicized fund-raising events, also found that the money is difficult to track _ with money being directed to various places, including the central funds set up for those affected by the fire, specific survivors or victimsďż˝ families, memorial scholarships, or fire safety education.

Many of the small fund-raising events have funneled their proceeds into several central funds, which together have taken in more than $3 million, according to information obtained through interviews with fund organizers.

The smaller efforts tend to fare well because they draw committed donors who may be connected to victims or event organizers, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy.

Also, he said, larger events sometimes are run by professional fund-raising groups, which have an incentive to generate money for themselves, not the intended beneficiaries.

The possible downside to the array of groups collecting funds is the potential for duplicating efforts and difficulty in tracking what�s been raised and where it�s gone.

Most of the fund-raising events do not have to register with the state. The state Department of Business Regulation, which tracks charities, does not require groups to register unless they raise more than $25,000. Even then, in most cases, those passing on the money to a registered charity rather than distributing it themselves wouldn�t have to register, said David Briden, chief securities examiner in the Department of Business Regulation.

"There�s no accountability. Nobody knows how much has been raised," Borochoff said.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch said there have been no reports of fraud, with the exception of two people who took advantage of the support services offered for fire victimsďż˝ families.

"People have been, across the board, incredible along these lines," Lynch said. "... Everybody�s hurting over this and I think everybody just wants to respond. The response has been great, and the taking advantage of people has not been there."

Briden also said his office hasn�t had any complaints about fire-related benefits.

In many nightclub fire fund-raisers, a sense of obligation to the fire�s victims is the only thing that guarantees the money gathered in the slew of small benefit events goes to them.

Many of the smaller events advertised that their proceeds would go to The Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund, managed by the Rhode Island Foundation. When asked to track the money, Rick Schwartz, a foundation spokesman, said it�s difficult to match up a particular benefit with a donation because most of the small benefits aren�t attached to a larger charity, so the funds come from the personal account of an event organizer.

"Naturally, I think that all of us who work in this business would prefer to believe that everybody did this on the up and up," Schwartz said.

It�s easier to track how the money that makes its way to the foundation and other major funds is spent, because they document their spending.

Schwartz said questions about how groups handled funds after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have taught those who raise and distribute aid some critical lessons.

"What we�ve learned from that is we�re telling you where every penny is," he said.

The fund, now managed by the foundation, was coordinated by the United Way in the immediate days after the fire and has gathered about $3 million. As of late August, $1.6 million had been spent, and Schwartz said it continues to be paid out at a rate of about $8,000 a business day for expenses like mortgages, rent, and counseling for survivors and victimsďż˝ families.

It has helped with funeral expenses for each of the fire�s 100 victims, and has helped pay for other short-term needs, such as accommodations for families of the injured so they could stay near hospitals while their loved ones were being treated, Schwartz said. The Feb. 20 fire killed 100 people and injured nearly 200 more.

The funds managed by the foundation are also paying for a team of case managers to work with victimsďż˝ families and survivors. The families have continued to need substantial help, Schwartz said, and because of that, the funds will likely be expended within about a year.

Other funds are also helping meet the slew of short term needs.

By this summer, the Kent County Fire Victims Fund had distributed $55,509 of the $73,350 it collected to residents of Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich, Warwick, and West Warwick, said Thomas V. Iannitti, director of senior services and human services in West Warwick.

The Station Family Fund, run by survivors and victimsďż˝ family members, has distributed about $29,279 of the $71,191 it has taken in.

The band Great White, whose pyrotechnics ignited the blaze, is on a 41-city tour to raise money for The Station Family Fund. So far, the band has donated $27,000.

Victoria Potvin, president of The Station Family Fund, said the fund will continue to collect donations and hand out money until it�s gone.

"This is not a fund that has a finite cancellation date. We�re going to do as much as we can for as long as we can," she said.

For Jody King, the fund�s vice president who lost his brother, Tracy, in the fire, the fund is also a way to cope with the tragedy.

"I got there (to The Station) so fast I was in the parking lot of the Cowesett Inn across the street before some of the fire trucks ... but I could not do anything for a single person that night," he said.

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