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When bad things happen, good people often step in

Within a day or two after three children and their grandmother were violently slain Nov. 18 in New Town, N.D., friends and family set up benefit funds there and across the state in Minto, N.D., where the children's divorced parents live.

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Within a day or two after three children and their grandmother were violently slain Nov. 18 in New Town, N.D., friends and family set up benefit funds there and across the state in Minto, N.D., where the children's divorced parents live.

Already, more than $55,000 has been raised, say organizers of the two separate funds.

It's one of the good things that so often is a community's response when bad things happen: people reach out to help, to pay for trips to Mayo Clinic, for fixing a house for a wheel chair, or for a stricken family's four sudden funerals.

Such giving is typical of North Dakota and can make all the difference, says Mike Blake.

The UND music professor needed a heart transplant in 1994 and stayed months at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., before and after.

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One of the region's landmark fundraising efforts helped him get through it, he said. More than $100,000 was donated, from people he grew up with in the Valley City, N.D., area and from Thompson, N.D., where he and his family then lived, and in Grand Forks where he and his wife, Ginnie, have taught for decades.

Blake turns 61 his month and feels good. He credits the fundraising as one reason.

"That's what it's like around here," said Blake last week about North Dakota generally. "It really is an amazing place. It's a giving community."

Family, friends

In the shooting deaths of Martha Johnson, 64, and three of her grandchildren, large networks of friends and family quickly stepped in to make a difference.

Benjamin, 13, Julia, 10 and Luke Schuster, 6, were killed with Johnson by someone using a rifle. A New Town man who killed himself within hours of the shooting has been tabbed a "person of interest," in the investigation.

The surviving siblings, Christian, 12, who hid under a brother's body, and Ava, 8, who was away from the home, now live with their grandfather Harley Johnson 30 miles away in Stanley, N.D.

American Lutheran Church opened an unused parsonage to them there.

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"They actually are doing quite well," Johnson said Thursday. "Christian, today is his first day of basketball. The community support both here and in New Town has been just fantastic."

A fund set up through Bethel Lutheran Church in New Town has about $30,000, none of it spent, said Dorothy Ventsch, church treasurer and longtime friend of Martha Johnson, who was church council president.

Several gifts have exceeded $1,000, she said, and "there was one donation from someone in Colorado that was in cash, a couple hundred dollars, in small bills, like they had just passed the hat."

A similar fund set up in Minto through the children's church in nearby Warsaw, N.D., has about $25,000, none of it spent, according to Kelly Altendorf, a friend of the family, and the Rev. John Kleinschmidt, the children's priest.

The plan is to cover any unpaid funeral bills, including headstones for the three siblings' graves in Warsaw. The remainder would go towards college for Christian and Ava.

In New Town, Ventsch said the funds raised will be turned over to Johnson as he needs them.

"Whatever I have control of, will go for the kids' benefit," said Johnson, who is retired from an oil pipeline job.

One-man effort

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Other times, charitable impulses can be the spontaneous effort of a sole stranger.

When Randy Kremer of Moorhead, read about the traffic accident on Interstate 94 just west of Jamestown, N.D., the day after Christmas that took the lives of six men from Missouri, he was moved to help out.

He saw a news article about the men being related, three of them just having moved from Mexico. "These families would have to have the bodies sent back to Mexico," he said.

Kremer spoke with family of the deceased men via a newspaper in Missouri, and he's confident they need the money. "I'm just doing what I can do. What happens from there, I have no control over."

He set up a fund for the men's family at Wells Fargo bank. By Wednesday, he said about $1,000 had been donated.

Kremer, a nurse anesthetist in a Fargo hospital, said his Christian faith made him want to help people, and with his children grown, he's able to.

Funny money

But sometimes such fundraising benefits raise questions as well as money.

In early December, Cynthia Ell, 38, was charged with felony fraud after police in Dickinson, N.D., said she had raised money by taking out ads saying she needed help because of bills from the premature birth of her ninth child.

It was a fake story, police said.

She also persuaded a Montana man to give her $166,000 to pay her mortgage and took other things not her own, police said. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

In November, the national Teamsters Union shut down the Teamsters club and bar in Fargo after an internal union investigation found evidence of long-term financial skullduggery by local leaders Brad Slawson Sr. and Brad Slawson Jr., from the Twin Cities, and a friend they installed to run the Fargo bar.

Forum News Service reported the investigation included accusations by a woman who said she was fired in 2011 from the bar when she refused to go along with a supervisor's suggestion to hold a benefit for a non-existent sick baby.

The phony fundraiser was never held but criminal charges still are possible pending the investigation.

A unique service

Mike Blake says a good way to run a benefit is through NDAD, started as the North Dakota Association for the Disabled in 1975 in Grand Forks.

The nonprofit group holds Blake up as the best example of how its Community Fundraising Program can work, said Leslie Stastny, director of client services. For nearly 30 years, NDAD has given expert help to organizers of benefits for those with health needs.

Sometimes it might just be buying someone a wheelchair.

In Blake's case, the fundraising provided 10 years of funding after his transplant.

"It paid for my meds and they were very expensive," Blake said. "It really helped because we didn't have to show income, which is important. They had so many different ideas."

If not handled correctly, money raised in a benefit might make a client ineligible for other aid by "raising" their income level, Stastny said.

NDAD does have rules and procedures in place that causes some fundraisers to not seek its help, she said. "It's not just handed over to people. There is an accounting process. We need to see bills, receipts."

Blake, who often speaks for and about NDAD, recommends the group wholeheartedly. "I get a lot of calls from people who need a transplant over the past 18 years and I always talk to them and say, make sure you talk to NDAD, because they are going to help you in so many aspects."

To help the Schuster children: Kevin J. Schuster Family Benefit, c/o KodaBank, P.O. Box 315, Minto, ND 58261; Johnson Family Benefit Fund, c/o Bethel Lutheran Church, P.O. Box 237, New Town, ND 58763.

Call Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: DICKINSONJAMESTOWN
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