TAMPA — Charity Arthur, the school resource deputy at Smith Middle School in Citrus Park since the fall of 2013, is about tapped out.
From the start, she heard stories of how some students at her school were struggling at home. Not with homework, drugs or crime, but struggling for food, to stay warm when it's cold, to have the medicine they need.
So she began to open up her bank account to help some of the students, the ones who would never ask for anything themselves.
“They're not bad kids,” Arthur said. “They aren't in families that waste money. These kids are making straight As, and many of them don't know where the next meal is coming from or if they are getting evicted. They're not going to the mall hanging with their friends. For Christmas, they're not asking for a $200 pair of tennis shoes, they need grocery money or rent money.”
Many of the students in the school are from poor families, said the 32-year-old Tampa native, and she can relate.
“I remember being that age, being really poor like that,” she said. “I remember my mom giving me $2 from the tooth fairy, and the next day, me having to give it back to her for gas money.
“My dad was unemployed all the time I was in high school.”
The result of that upbringing: unending charity from a woman with an appropriate name. But over the course of time, paying out cash from her personal account has dwindled her own resources.
So a month and a half ago, she opened up a GoFundMe.com account to help her help others.
The account is online and seeks donations to help kids at her school.
Her pitch, in part, says this:
“I'm the resource officer at a middle school where the majority of my students are below the poverty level. ... I would love to continue helping these students but it is becoming more than I can keep up with myself. I have students who are homeless or living in near destitute situations and students whose only meal every day is the free school lunch they receive. I would love to bless some of these students over Christmas and possibly through out the school year.”
She said that when she started the account, she thought it would only pull in maybe $50. She said she was surprised that in less than five weeks almost 50 people have donated more than $2,200.
“Maybe, people just want to help kids,” Arthur said. “Some of these kids have serious needs.
“There are a lot of students in need,” she said, “a lot more than I realized. I've been helping out, paying for groceries, part of the cost of a funeral, books, paying for after-school care. I just can't tell them no. How do you pick one kid and not another kid?”
One student's family went two months without electricity, she said. They owed $360 on the bill; Arthur paid it off the day she learned about the situation.
“One of our students' mom died recently,” said the deputy, who has been with the department for 12 years and a school resource officer since 2008. “I gave that student some money to go toward the funeral expenses. I contributed; I didn't pay for all of it.
“Today, I gave a girl $150 for groceries,” she said Tuesday. The family is on welfare, but when that runs out, the student eats only food served at school. There's no supper, no after-school or bedtime snacks.
This week, she bought asthma medicine for a student whose family was mired in Medicaid red tape.
She's been paying to fill students' needs out of her own pocket, until recently when she decided to make use of the Internet.
“It was easy,” she said. “I forwarded it to friends and family and then it just caught on. I put a goal of $3,000, but I'll take as much as I can. The website takes a good amount in fees.”
That is a public funding website drawback, said Kelli Burns, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in social media.
“People who are interested in setting up fundraising campaigns should be aware that the sites themselves are usually funded by both a percentage of donor contributions and a nominal flat fee per donation,” she said.
Still, individuals who have to raise money for various endeavors have been turning to GoFundMe.com and similar online fundraising sites. And it seems to work, Burns said, “because they offer users all the tools needed to manage a fundraising campaign,” from a Web page showcasing the campaign to a way to accept donations and the ability to easily share the campaign on social media sites. Donors can contribute from a computer, tablet or smartphone.
“Fundraising sites take advantage of the power of social media, where campaigns can spread quickly from campaign creators to their many followers and so on,” Burns said. “Without social media, it would be much more difficult for these fundraising campaigns to gain attention and subsequently donations.
All told, Arthur has laid out maybe $1,000 over the past year and a half, and it's been sort of a family secret. She and her husband, a supervisor with the sheriff's office, keep separate accounts, and he was unaware of her philanthropic habit until she opened the GoFundMe.com account. She was careful not to overextend herself and paid off credit card bills as she could.
She says she has no regrets about the money she's spent.
“The kids don't ask for money,” she said. Most of the referrals come from staff at the school who know about the situations some students are facing.
“When I ask (students), they generally lie to me,” Arthur said. “They make up stories. They think that if they tell the truth, somebody will take them away from their parents. Or their moms will get mad.”
Smith Middle School Principal JoAnn Johnson said she's impressed and moved by Arthur's compassion.
“Her job with the sheriff's office is second to her just being a good person,” Johnson said. “And she's an excellent role model to the kids. She's always trying to help them out any way she can. She lets them know they are human.”