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Ben Hardwick, at center with Ngong Primary School students, posted a plea on reddit.com after the machete attack. It has raised $80,000.

Ben Curtis, Associated Press

Kenyan tale shows power of online giving

  • Article by: JEAN HOPFENSPERGER
  • Star Tribune
  • February 6, 2012 - 1:09 PM

Ben Hardwick was horrified when he learned that a worker at a Kenyan orphanage supported by his nonprofit was attacked with a machete.

So last week, he posted a photo of the worker's scarred face and a message on the social networking site reddit.com with a fundraising plea for a security fence.

"Meet Omari," wrote Hardwick, a founder of the fledging Longonot Education Initiative in Minneapolis. "Two days ago he returned from the hospital after being hacked in the face by a machete defending an orphanage of 35 children by himself. Think we could raise the $2,000?"

Within 24 hours, an astounding $70,000 poured in from across the globe in response to Hardwick's plea, made from his home in Kenya. Nonprofit watchers say the response points to the growing power of social networks that aren't necessarily designed for fundraising.

"This mode of giving, based on people talking to each other online, is how more and more people are giving," said Dana Nelson, executive director of GiveMN, Minnesota's online giving forum. "It's the conversation that's happening that motivates them." The tale of the heroic orphanage worker who took a machete to the face to protect children was picked up by countless bloggers, Twitter users and online news sites. By this week, the story was being picked up by the national media.

It's head-spinning stuff for the nonprofit, started by three college students who met at a University of Minnesota study abroad program in Kenya in 2010.

The donation blitz didn't happen on a Facebook Causes page, for example.

It was on reddit.com, an information-sharing community that has enjoyed other spontaneous fundraising successes.

"It was amazing," said Kyle Burkholder, a recent U graduate who joined with Hardwick and U student Liana Leyrer to found the nonprofit that supports the orphanage and school in Kenya.

"We were up all night, watching the donations explode," Burkholder said, referring to Hardwick. "I'd refresh every minute. More donations. Refresh again. More donations. The online community just blew this through the roof."

A heartfelt request

Hardwick had no idea he would spark an online sensation when he grabbed his laptop last Thursday night, sat on his bed in a home outside Nairobi and sent out his plea.

Intruders had tried to break into the orphanage in the town of Ngong, outside of Nairobi, several times, he said.

Thieves try to get away with electronics, appliances, food -- and children, he said.

Some "witch doctors" still use children's limbs to perform spells or do healings, he said.

Anthony Omari, the orphanage director's son, scared away the intruders the last three times they broke in, he said.

He drove them off this time, too, but they attacked him with a machete that sliced open a side of his face from his forehead to just above his upper lip.

Thanks to Hardwick's post, the young Kenyan became an overnight cult hero in online communities.

As folks sent donations, they also inserted themselves into the drama in Kenya with running commentaries on reddit.

"Can you please tell Omari ... how many girls are going to swoon for him when he explains how he got that scar?" one user wrote.

They posted mock slogans, such as "Omari is Too Legit To Quit." They explored all manner of machete minutia, including where one might buy one. ("Machetes-R-Us" or the "Machete Mall.") One man urged Omari to get some "scary looking armor."

Others warned Hardwick: "Seems legit, Sent $100. Now if you turn out to be stealing money I'll spend another $100 on a machete of my own."

Coincidences abound.

Several people posted that they had visited or even worked at the orphanage. The CEO of the company that hosts the nonprofit's Web page, Weebly, read the plea and donated $10,000.

Meanwhile, Hardwick made regular updates. "$44,000! I can hardly breathe!" he wrote the morning after his request. "I refreshed the page twice to make sure it was real."

About 8,000 miles away in Minneapolis, the e-mail box was exploding.

Said Burkholder: "People wanted to collect school supplies. Someone offered to help with a clean water initiative. They offered to improve our website."

Guards hired

Today, a week later, two guards protect the orphanage. The locks have been changed. A work crew is halfway through building a concrete wall around the place.

"Life at the orphanage is a bit hectic at the moment. There are always at least a dozen construction workers working on the wall," Hardwick said on Thursday. "Friends and family are consistently visiting Omari and [orphanage director] Mama Mora to say sorry and congratulations."

In the weeks ahead, the nonprofit founders will talk with some advisers about how to budget the money to make the biggest impact at the orphanage, Hardwick said.

Among the likely future projects: to buy the orphanage and the land, now being rented.

None of the $80,000 raised so far will go to its founders, said Burkholder, who holds down the fort in Minnesota with Leyrer. The nonprofit, Burkholder said, is a labor of love.

"We're making the orphanage physically secure," Burkholder said. "Now we want to make it financially secure."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-451

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