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Jessica Heinz grassroots support foundation gains traction

Clearly what starts in NoDa can change the world.



It's a seemingly throwaway fact: More than 28 percent of North Carolinians claimed a charitable deduction on their tax returns in 2011, making us the 15th most charitable state in the Union. Or maybe giving is so tightly woven into our thread, we barely take note of the stitching anymore. I didn't until I had to.

"So I know you're not really into the praying thing, but..." began one of the worst texts I've ever received, informing me that one of my best friends and neighbors had suffered a life-threatening injury while I was away on vacation.

On June 29, Jessica Heinz, 27, was boating with friends in Lake Murray, S.C., when she dove in for a swim, unaware of the large root sticking out from the ground hidden by the water. She returned to the surface unconscious.

After a medivac took her to Palmetto Richland Medical Center, doctors found that she had broken two vertebrae in her neck and seven more in her back. She'd need surgery and extensive therapy.

The Jessica Heinz Support group started with just eight friends meeting at The Dog Bar in NoDa, the neighborhood Jessica has called home for the last six years, a little over 24 hours after her accident. Over cold beers, the group discussed the major financial support Jessica would need. She had just started her job and her health benefits hadn't kicked in, making her among the estimated 1.5 million North Carolinians without health insurance.

Medical bills loomed, but the Heinz family would need help even sooner. Upon hearing the news, her parents immediately left their home in Clover, S.C., and have taken up residence at a hotel five minutes from the hospital. They had to hire someone to take care of Jessica's grandmother in Clover, who suffers from Stage 4 Alzheimer's. Jessica's mother, Jaci, is usually her primary caregiver. In addition, Jessica's rent, utilities and phone bill would need to be paid.

From that Sunday night brainstorming session came a Facebook page to collect donations. Friends also began reaching out to local businesses for help.

"It all started with just trying to collect money at the bars, getting the word out that one of our own is down," said Chris Swanson, a certified public accountant and friend of Jessica's tasked with tracking funds raised for her family.

Days after the accident, a fundraiser at Miyagi's NoDa and a raffle at The Blind Pig raised about $5,000. A weekend of food and drink specials at Solstice Tavern the following weekend raised $2,100.

Jerry Hebert, owner of The Blind Pig, began using his connections throughout NoDa to bring businesses on to either host fundraisers or donate. Soon the list was growing exponentially, including NoDa staples such as The Neighborhood Theatre and Fu's Tattoos to businesses throughout the city, such as Corner Pub and Hawthorne's Pizza.

"All the time in NoDa, we see and hear that we need to buy local and support local businesses," Hebert said. "Part of supporting local is that in a time of need, local businesses have to return the favor."

As serious money started coming in, Swanson realized that the grassroots effort would need to be documented or the IRS would come knocking. He began putting everything into a database that could help him track every dollar brought in through donation buckets and bar crawls. He asked Taylor Slaughter, whose work with 501(c)(3) charity the Chronic Illness Relief Fund is well-known throughout NoDa, to help. Slaughter set up a tax-exempt fund through the Fund to help pay Jessica's living expenses to the end of 2013.

That fund was closed after nearly $20,000 was raised in the first month. The Jessica Heinz Support Fund is now taking donations through a page on The Chronic Illness Relief Fund has pledged to reopen their donation efforts o help support Jessica's other needs if and when that time comes.

Fundraising efforts have even extended past city limits. Donations have come in from California, New York, Chicago and even Hong Kong.

"Realistically, the funds aren't unlimited in NoDa," said Swanson. "This neighborhood has really stepped up, but it is just a drop in the bucket compared to what she needs."

The tone in Jessica's father's voice switches from nearly beaten to optimistic to unbelievably grateful, sometimes in the same sentence. Jeff Heinz tells me that the first month or so of Jessica's hospital stay will focus on recovering from the surgery she went through after the accident. He and Jaci invite me to Columbia to surprise Jessica and beam when they talk about the movement back in Charlotte.

"I know there are angels walking around in human form all over and now I've seen them," said Jaci. "I've met them all through this terrible tragedy."

Only a week and a half after her accident, Jessica was able to move her arms a bit and speak a little at a time. As I read her some of the countless text messages left on her phone during her hospital stay, she responds with short sentences.

Jessica's sense of humor is still intact, too. As I relate a story of how horrible the daytime TV was during my long hospital stay years ago, she's able to whisper one damning word into my ear: "Kardashians."

Back in Charlotte and across the country, Jessica's friends continue to rally around the "Jessica Heinz Support" Facebook page. New ideas for bar crawls and customized koozies are pitched, and come to fruition almost daily.

"Not only do we have the ability to do this, we have an obligation to do this," said Hebert.

[email protected]

UPDATE: The funding efforts have since changed since the story was published. The Jessica Heinz Support Fund is not a 501(c)(3) charity, therefor the funds raised are not tax deductible. Funds raised the the Chronic Relief Fund are tax deductible.

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