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Random acts fuel fundraising efforts

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Janice O'Donnell watched the number on her screen climb and climb and climb. And when she couldn't watch any more, there were text messages from friends asking if she was watching.

By the end of the day, close to $50,000 had poured in through the Chive Charities campaign set up to benefit her 2-year-old-daughter, Addyson, who was born with spina bifida.

"I basically spent the entire day crying," O'Donnell said.

She had expected maybe a couple thousand dollars, at the most. But fundraising campaigns run by Chive Charities have a way of exceeding expectations.

The organization is an offshoot of thechive.com a photo-based entertainment and humor website that has developed a cult following and an almost unexplainable tradition of generosity among its supporters, who are known as Chivers.

Even before the charity branch formed in 2012, Chivers throughout the nation were known, if only among themselves, for practicing random acts of kindness.

"It kind of became like a tradition that if you saw somebody out in public with the shirt from thechive.com, … [you] would do something nice for that person — buy them a beer, people leave money on the cars that have [Chive] stickers on them, stuff like that," said Zack Rexine, the founder of the Maryland chapter of thechive.

That attitude of giving has carried over to Chive Charities, which raises money for specific individuals in need rather than whole organizations, sharing their stories online along with a link to donate in flash-campaign form.

Recently, local chapters like Rexine's have started forming around the country, transforming the online community into social groups that host "meet-ups," or parties, that raise money for charity. They donate proceeds from cover charges and auctioned items.

Rexine, 27, started the Maryland chapter in March, and the group, which has more than 5,300 followers on Facebook, has raised close to $60,000 through roughly six events, he said.

It is a unique, and so far successful, take on charity, fueled primarily by a millennial generation often pegged as self-absorbed party animals. The local chapters of Chive Charities play to the latter notion, while standing as a total contradiction to the former.

Rexine, who is from Baltimore but now lives Columbia, thought it was an excellent idea.

"You're having all this fun, but you're raising so much money for a good cause," he said. "I thought, 'This is perfect. We can do so much for the community while also developing new friends and [meeting] people that have become like my family.'"

That's how Rexine met Melissa Smith, the Annapolis woman whom he called the focus of thechive's most successful campaign to date and who introduced him to the O'Donnell family.

Smith, 29, was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma at 22, and two years after going into remission, she relapsed, according to thechive.com story. After beating the disease a second time, Smith received another devastating diagnosis. She had transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder that affects the spinal cord. She would soon be paralyzed from the waist down and told by doctors that she would never walk again.

Thechive picked up Smith's story and it went viral. The campaign pulled in more than $400,000 for Smith, passing the initial goal of $50,000 within the first 30 minutes, according to a post from the site's founder.

As of earlier this month, the donations were still flowing in.

"The Chivers kind of developed a reputation for, when they see a goal, their mind set is, 'Well we can shatter it,'" Rexine said.

The Maryland chapter hosted an event that raised about $11,000 for Smith, and when it was over, Rexine and other members of the group decided to let her choose the beneficiary of the chapter's next campaign.

Without hesitation, Smith suggested Addyson.

She and O'Donnell had attended high school together, and the two had reconnected over Facebook not long before Smith's Chive campaign launched.

O'Donnell reached out, unsure if Smith would remember her, after reading a post she had left on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" Facebook page.

"[The post was] just kind of saying she was worried about how her family felt about having to take care of her and how she felt like a burden," O'Donnell said. "And I just wanted to reach out to her and say … 'I have a daughter that's … in a similar situation as you, and don't ever think that you're a burden to your family, because your family is going to love you regardless.'"

The two became a support group, and O'Donnell said Smith has helped her understand what it might be like for Addyson, who, like Smith, can't walk.

"She's opened my eyes to … what it feels like," O'Donnell said. "Doctors can't really tell you [that], but somebody experiencing it can."

The support group grew when Smith introduced the O'Donnell family to thechive community. O'Donnell said what's happened since has "meant the world."

"It's so overwhelming and so comforting at the same time," she said. "Because you grow up, and … you see the bullies and people constantly picking on each other, so you kind of get a sense that … you don't know how the world is going to accept your child being disabled."

"But seeing all these people just kind of opening up, it makes you feel a sense of acceptance and that maybe the world is definitely changing, and … there is a good amount of people that have good hearts."

Rexine said he believes that same ethos is part of the reason why Chive Charities has been so successful.

"I feel like people are generally good," he said. "They just … need opportunities, and this one's an easy one."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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