While central Ohioans open their hearts and wallets to the victims of two hurricanes to make landfall in the United States, local experts advise donors be cautious about where they put their contributions.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, dumping more than 40 inches of rain over four days in eastern Texas.
The resulting floods inundated hundreds of homes and displaced more than 30,000 people.
That was closely followed by Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida on Sept. 9 and left storm damage and massive power outages behind.
"We always see the good in humanity come out in times of need," said Kip Morse, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving central Ohio. "The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey motivates many of us to help as soon as possible.
"We want donors to be aware of some important tips and key points of caution so that their generosity will get to those in need quickly and effectively," Morse said.
Making donations count
The Better Business Bureau and BBB Wise Giving Alliance advise people to help as much as they can with disaster-relief efforts, but to do so with caution and make sure donations get to the people who need it most, said Judy Dollison, BBB vice president of marketing and communications serving central Ohio.
She said BBB officials are already seeing crowdfunding appeals of a dubious nature and in the days ahead expect to see "storm chasers" looking to make a quick buck off of cleanup efforts (bbb.org/storm).
Consumers can report suspected scams to the BBB Scam Tracker online at bbb.org/scamtracker.
The BBB Wise Giving Alliance suggests donors verify the trustworthiness of soliciting relief organizations by visiting Give.org to access free reports that specify if the charity meets the 20 BBB Standards for Charity Accountability.
Donors should also see if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in impacted areas.
Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to bring in new aid workers to provide assistance quickly.
Donors should also be cautious about gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations.
In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned, may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need -- unless the leading organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid properly, according to the BBB.
The organization also advises people to keep in mind that some crowdfunding sites do very little vetting of individuals who post for assistance after a disaster and it is often difficult for donors to verify the trustworthiness of crowdfunding requests for support.
For those who decide to contribute via crowdfunding, it is probably best to give to people who are personal acquaintances that have posted requests for assistance.
Schools help schools
Marcie Aiello, a Gahanna Lincoln High School business/technology teacher, responded to a Facebook post by a teacher in Tennessee, Briana Beverly, who set up a simple Google form to collect information from teachers affected by Harvey, as well as to collect information from teachers interested in helping those affected by Harvey.
Aiello, adviser of the all-girls "S" Club, was matched with an English teacher named Jessica Wheat at Dickinson High School, just southwest of Houston.
"Ms. Wheat and I have been corresponding via email so that the girls in my "S" Club can best help her classroom, students and school," Aiello said.
Gahanna's "S" Club is the high school chapter of the international women's organization, Soroptimist. Its mission is service for women and children.
Thanks from Texas
"I remember sitting at my computer looking through my class rosters after the rain finally stopped, thinking, 'chances are, almost every one of my students is now homeless, possession less and/or traumatized,' " Wheat wrote via email when asked to describe her motivation for turning to Facebook.
She said she asked herself what she could do for them.
"I needed help," Wheat said. "That's when a friend tagged me in a teachers helping teachers post on Facebook. I immediately signed my class up, hoping to get my students help getting school supplies."
A few days later, Wheat received an email from Aiello, telling her about her girls and how excited they were to help in any way they could.
"I cannot explain the multitude of emotions that swam through me as I read her email," Wheat said. "I was relieved that there would be one less thing for my students and their parents to worry about. School supplies are not something they should have to worry about right now, especially considering they had already bought them once since we started school the week before the flood."
Wheat said she was excited to have been selected to even be adopted, but she was sad her students had a need for assistance in the first place.
"I was ashamed that I had to look outside of my community for the help we needed," she said. "But most of all, I was thankful. Thankful in educators seeing the flooding and devastation in Dickinson, Houston, Rockport, Port Aransas, and every other community and town that was hit and saying to themselves, 'By the grace of God, that could have been my school and my students and my community.' "
Wheat said the relief efforts in Texas aren't just going to take a few weeks.
"We will be rebuilding for months and years," she said. "The support from others across the country reminds us that we are not alone. If we need help, we just need to ask."
If others want to help her school district, they can go online at http://a.co/21gywjj and donate from an Amazon wish list for the campuses that were affected. Items can be mailed Dickinson Education Foundation, 2218 FM 517, Dickinson, Texas 77539.
Donations can also be made to a Facebook campaign to help the district's 11,000 students at https://www.facebook.com/donate/255258248301282/10203705418552474/.
"Houston will never forget the love America has shown to us in our time of need," Wheat said.
Aiello said the "S" Club is excited to be collecting school supplies and monetary donations to help Wheat's classroom and the school.
"By finding this match, it makes our collection drive so much more meaningful because we can put names/faces to where our donations are going," she said. "If anyone in the community would like to support "S" Club in their efforts, school supplies and monetary donations can be dropped off at GLHS during school hours."
She encourages all donors to include a note, card and/or photo with their donations to be included with the shipment, making the donations even more meaningful and personal to the students and families.
Gahanna's Chapelfield Elementary Principal Shea Reed said an Adopt-A-Classroom initiative is underway at her school as well.
"We have several classrooms that are participating in an Adopt-a-Classroom programs to support schools in the Houston area who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey," she said. "Classes are collecting basic supplies to send to a specific classroom teacher in Texas so that students will have the supplies they need when they return to school."
Westerville North High School athletic director Wes Elifritz said students raised $1,127 for Harvey relief between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1.
He said students were told the funds would go to assist Kristi Wolfe, a Westerville North alumna, for her high school in Cedar Creek, Texas, as well as North friend Dana Lofgren and her school, Kingwood High School in Kingwood, Texas.
"Dana is a close friend of a staff member at WNHS," Elifritz said. "On Friday (Sept.1), the final total was announced and I announced that WN Athletics would do a matching donation."
Both Cedar Creek and Kingwood high schools will receive $1,127 from Westerville North.
"Our students embodied the 'Warrior Way' in this outpouring of support for those affected by Harvey," Elifritz said.
Margaret (Peggi) Wallace, a fourth-grade teacher at Westerville's Hawthorne Elementary School, said her students are making activity bags for children who have been impacted by Harvey.
"They are donating crayons, composition books, chapter books, cards for math games, dice for math games and Beanie Boo stuffed animals," Wallace said.
Westerville Central High School also partnered with Rock City Church to collect items for Hurricane Harvey relief, said Greg Viebranz, the district's executive director, communication and technology.