St. Augustine Hurricane Hope Fund grassroots fundraising effort raises $16,000 for Firefighters For Families hurricane relief



News reports and social media posts flickered under Christina Klemkowski’s eyes as the battering winds and rain of Hurricane Matthew took hold of St. Augustine on Oct. 7.

Evacuated to Florida’s Gulf Coast, she watched, trying to stay connected to the destruction falling over her home of 10 years through the small, illuminated screen of her smartphone. It was in this moment, with the storm still surging over the city, that Klemkowski, the owner of small screen-printing shop Yell Yes Screen Printing, was struck by a seemingly small thought – she could sell shirts to raise money for people impacted by the storm.

“It was just an inkling of an idea,” she said.

But it was one that resulted in a whole lot of ink.

That weekend, Klemkowski and a small group of volunteers formed the St. Augustine Hurricane Hope Fund. In the months following the storm, they printed and sold more than 1,000 shirts and, dedicating 100 percent of profits and donations, raised more than $16,000 for St. Johns County Fire Rescue’s Firefighter’s for Families charity. This funding provided $13,903 of direct assistance to 66 St. Johns County families impacted by the storm, including 106 children, as well as holiday help for hurricane-hit families struggling through the winter months.

Getting started

Initially anticipating that she would sell “maybe a few hundred” shirts, Klemkowski reached out that Sunday on the Saint Augustine Hurricane Recovery Facebook group to gauge interest. But, as the streets began to reopen and floodwaters receded, she was startled to see thousands of comments pouring in.

“It just took off,” she said. “That feed went crazy for those shirts. They weren’t even on sale. We didn’t even have a design.”

Klemkowski says the prospect of purchasing enough shirts to meet the initial demand was nerve-wracking.

“I’m a small business,” she said. “I don’t have an unlimited checkbook … I was going out of pocket … just kind of hoping that all the buzz stuck around and we would actually sell these.”

Despite personal risk, she jumped in.

“I wanted to do this to help,” she said. “I came home and my apartment was fine, my business was fine, but so many things around me were not fine.”

The process

Seeing the spiraling Facebook response, Klemkowski’s longtime friend Erica Canelos, a full-time mom and owner of Painted Palm Events, offered to help.

“That was like a saving grace,” Klemkowski said.

Lunging in full force, Canelos researched nonprofits, packaged and shipped out all email orders out of her home, and brought order to the chaos over the next months with printed and handwritten notes inside a big paper binder.

Others stepped up to the task, as well.

Among them were local artist Kiara Sanchez, who permitted the use of her one-line illustration of the St. Augustine cityscape for the shirts; photographer Tucker Joenz, who built a website with an online store; graphic designer Jesse Reyes, who designed banners and the back of the shirt; owners of African Love Kitchen food truck, Jennifer Mahem, Ibrahim Mahem and Merissa Mustafa, who volunteered their time to help produce and print shirts; and finance professional James Canelos, Erica’s husband, who managed the fund’s accounting.

Together, weaving schedules and working around Klemkowski’s regular business orders, the volunteers unboxed, printed, folded, sorted and packaged shirts in her warehouse – often into early morning, and manned five community sales.

“It was a well-oiled machine when we all got going,” Klemkowski said.

Firefighters for Families

With no experience raising money for charity and stopped-short by the “legalities” and “red tape” of fundraising, Canelos and Klemkowski sought to align with an established nonprofit to identify families and distribute funds.

“It was kind of shocking,” Klemkowski said. “We wanted to give money away and it was hard to figure out how to do this. You can’t just give money away apparently.”

Seeking an organization with a proven record of providing immediate, tangible assistance directly to people on a local level and determined to ensure that 100 percent of profits went to relief so that “no one made money off of this tragedy,” they found a match in Firefighters for Families.

“It was just important for us to find somewhere that we felt we could trust what they were going to do with the money,” Canelos said.

Since the 1980s, Firefighters for Families has orchestrated a holiday food, clothing and toy drive for local families in need. Last year, in a partnership with the St. Augustine Hurricane Hope Fund, they extended their operations to provide assistance to meet the specific needs of families impacted by Matthew.

Jenn Hampton, who has been at the helm of Firefighters for Families since 2010, managed both operations.

Firefighters for Families distributed $13,903 to meet the direct needs of 66 families, identified by the organization through the school board and Hurricane Hope Fund volunteers.

Remaining funding was provided to the Firefighter’s for Families holiday drive. With winter holidays falling right on the back of the storm, the organization encountered an outflow of need from families who, while they had the financial means to make post-storm repairs and replacements, found themselves unable to provide for the winter holidays.

“The interaction with the [hurricane-impacted] families was a completely different experience,” Hampton said.

One difference was that a number of families came from areas where the organization doesn’t typically see participation, such as Davis Shores. Some of these families were shy about receiving assistance, she said.

“They’ve never needed it before,” she said. “They’ve donated to families and never had to be on this end of it. A lot of them left their names and numbers wanting to assist next year because, hopefully, by then they can be on their feet and they can return the favor with volunteering, wrapping presents, or bundling food.”

Coming to an end

For Canelos and Klemkowski, operating the Hurricane Hope Fund was a transformative experience.

In listening to the stories of people who arrived at the front door of her home on a daily basis to purchase shirts, Canelos “made friendships with complete strangers.” Often, she was struck by how many people making donations had suffered their own losses in the storm.

Klemkowski found that working in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day operations of the fund “for the good of a lot of people” had, “on the micro-level,” helped them “become better people together.” She described feeling as if none of the other political or life events going on in the world mattered.

“It was a more raw connection,” Klemkowski said. “We just wanted to treat each other like human beings.”