Overwhelming charity

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- Even now, six months after the bombing, the money arrives: A $181 check from Tennessee. More than $360,000 from a bankers' association.

Thirty-seven cents that a child carefully taped inside an envelope and mailed to the mayor.

Between $25 million and $35 million, depending on who is estimating, has come to Oklahoma City since April 19, the day a terrorist's bomb blasted apart the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Relief groups, used to begging for donations, found themselves in an unexpected predicament: They had plenty of money and few models to guide their spending.

Is there too much money? Tom B. Brown, president of the Oklahoma City United Way, smiled and answered very carefully.

"In Hurricane Andrew," which tore through South Florida in 1992, "there definitely was not enough money. In the earthquake in San Francisco, there definitely was not enough money. We have had adequate resources here."

The money came so fast, in such huge amounts, that a few survivors wondered why they weren't simply being handed cash.

From time to time, a victim or relative would suggest that the millions of dollars be divided by 169, the number of people who died in the Murrah building, and given away.

"Some of the families, unfortunately, viewed this as an annuity: 'Where's my check?' " said Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. "But it is not an annuity. We have to do this responsibly."

The nation's generosity, welcome as it was, raised questions: Who gets the money? How much? And who should decide?

The answers aren't as obvious as they might seem.

Most of the survivors don't need shelter, food or clothing, which relief agencies provide after a natural disaster.

This bombing left many survivors struggling with depression, trying to pay bills after the death of a breadwinner or worrying about how they can return to work when their colleagues are dead.

These are not the kinds of needs that many organizations are used to fulfilling.

"You could have more people killed in a hurricane," said Nancy Anthony, executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, "and not have the emotional trauma you had here in one violent, manmade act.

"What we're faced with is trying to help a large group of people put their lives back together."

Obvious needs met

The staff at the Community Foundation, at the request of Oklahoma City's mayor, has been helping to manage the donations -- including thousands of contributions that came to the mayor's office alone.

"This was really a national event that happened to be located here," Ms. Anthony said. "We didn't understand that at first. We didn't understand the level of response from all over the country."

Americans, Ms. Anthony said, wanted to help the bleeding children they saw on television. But many of those children didn't survive. They had no hospital costs. Their families still had homes and food and clothes.

"After you've buried the child and provided counseling for the parents, what else can you do?" Ms. Anthony asked.

"How much can you do for Baylee Almon's mother?"

There are some in Oklahoma City who don't see how having a lot of money is a problem.

"We've heard this constantly: There's millions of dollars there. Why can't I get some?" Ms. Anthony said. "But just because your husband was killed or your mother was killed doesn't mean you have a need that should be paid for.

"We're not about the distribution of money. We're about meet

ing people's needs."

Some needs were obvious.

To start, "every funeral, every grave marker, every grave site was paid for," Ms. Anthony said. The funeral services alone cost $800,000, Ms. Anthony said.

All children who lost a parent in the Murrah building -- about 175 under 23 years old -- will have college or vocational school scholarships through a fund that will exist for more than 20 years. The last victim's baby was born in July, the child of a delivery man who happened to be making a stop at the Murrah building on April 19.

And funds have been set aside for counseling, which some survivors may need for years.

Views, problems differ

But beyond those costs, every family had different problems. And each relief organization had different views on how to help.

A charity that might be willing to pay for a survivor's parents to fly to Oklahoma City might not want to cover a few months' mortgage payments. A fund that might pay to replace a widow's leaking roof might not be interested in picking up a student's tuition bill.

That's why the Resource Coordination Committee was formed.

Each Friday, representatives of about 20 organizations gather in a conference room to review cases, discuss who will pay for what -- and decide what requests will simply be rejected.

The committee works from a data base set up by the United Way, which has entered the name of every person killed or injured in the bombing, plus every relative -- more than 3,000 entries in all.

All cases are confidential. But Daniel J. Kurtenbach, president of Oklahoma Goodwill Industries, Inc., sketched the stories that come before the committee:

Three children orphaned in the explosion move in with an aunt and uncle who already had three children of their own. Where the family used to fit in a Honda, it now needs a van.

Large, traditional relief agencies may say no. But a smaller group -- a service club or a church organization -- may want to spend their money on a vehicle.

So the case is read to the group by a relief agency worker, who estimates a van will cost $20,000.

"And then I stand up like an auctioneer," Mr. Kurtenbach said. "And one group will say, 'I'll give $5,000.' And another says, 'I'll give $5,000.' And one says, 'I'll give $3,000.' And I'll say, 'Who'll pay for tag, title and tax?' And someone else says, 'We will.' "

A few weeks ago, the group was presented with a medical bill of $74,000 -- down from $250,000, including the hospital's 40 percent reduction.

"People were saying, 'I want to give,' " Mr. Kurtenbach said. Soon, in increments of $10,000 and $15,000, the entire bill was paid.

"The beauty of this committee is you've got a lot of different opinions on what's a legitimate need," Mr. Kurtenbach said. "You build on a culture of diverse views."

No standard criteria

Each case is weighed independently.

Mr. Kurtenbach recalls one widow who asked for help paying overdue credit-card bills. Some groups rejected the request. But others reasoned that the husband, who had been killed in the bombing, had been the only provider for the family. The wife had never worked outside the home. Now she was left with three children, including two in college. And she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The groups covered her bills for a few months and arranged financial counseling.

But another widow asking for help with credit-card payments was rejected. She had not been hurt in the bombing. She was still working. Her husband had carried life insurance. She had no reason to seek help for bills that she had incurred before the bombing, the committee decided.

People whose cars were lost in the explosion had their vehicles replaced -- but no one was allowed to trade up unless they could prove a need that was related to the bombing.

And the grandmother of one of the children who died in the bombing asked for one charity to pay for her root canal.

"We said no," said Rosena Rucker, of the Community Counseling Center. "We couldn't make the connection" between her need for dental work and the death of her grandchild.

Some households received help for months with routine expenses.

The coordination committee expects to operate at least 18 more months. Families continue to ask for help, and the money continues to arrive.

"I still open the mail and am not surprised to find two, three checks a week," said Rick Moore, assistant to Mayor Ron Norick.

"We're going to be here until the money is spent," said Mr. Kurtenbach.

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