Update: In less than two days, Evan Leedy’s fundraising campaign for James Robertson went viral and surpassed $145,000. The 19-year-old college student met Robertson, the man he is trying to help, on Monday night. The pair appeared individually on Tuesday morning news programs, including the “TODAY” show.
A Detroit man’s daily 21-mile walk to work has inspired people across the country to raise more than $60,000 to buy him a car and pay for his auto insurance. And at least two car dealerships have offered to donate brand new vehicles to ease his travel.
Every weekday, James Robertson, 56, leaves his home in Detroit and travels miles to his factory job in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Public transportation doesn’t cover the full route of his commute, so he walks about eight miles to work and about 13 miles home. He also takes a bus ride part-way to work. He has endured the trek since his Honda Accord stopped working in 2005. But despite the challenges, Robertson reportedly has perfect attendance at his job, where he earns $10.55 per hour molding parts.
The Detroit Free Press published a story about Robertson on the front page of its newspaper Sunday. Evan Leedy, a 19-year-old student studying computer science at nearby Wayne State University in Detroit, read the article on the newspaper’s Facebook page around 10:30 a.m. on Sunday. People posted comments, calling on Robertson’s bosses to give him a raise, and even offering their vehicles, bus tickets and daily car services to him. Leedy, who has a similar daily commute but travels by car, wanted to help. In five minutes, he created a fundraising cause for Robertson on a GoFundMe website.
Leedy said he initially set the goal to $5,000, which was reached within hours. Before he went to bed on Sunday night, $37,000 had been raised. When he woke up on Monday, the amount reached $42,000. And by later that morning, the campaign surpassed $52,500. With the money, Leedy hopes to buy Robertson a car, pay for his insurance and provide professional help in managing the donations.
“Most people in that situation quit their job,” Leedy told msnbc. “But he has been with his company for 10 years, and he didn’t want to give that up, and he does whatever it takes to get there.”
The college student partnered with two other people who also had created GoFundMe sites for Robertson. Leedy pointed out that none of them personally know Robertson. But together, their sites have raised more than $60,000.
Leedy, who attends school in Robertson’s Detroit neighborhood and works near the factory, said he drives about 70 miles each day. “I’ve complained about an hour’s ride home, but to see this guy, who walks eight hours a day, 21 miles a day, that’s incredible. He walks almost a marathon every single day.”
“I would love to see it turn into way more than a car. We could help this guy move into his own house or move closer to his work,” Leedy added.
Honda’s North American corporate office and Rodgers Chevrolet in nearby Woodhaven, Michigan, each offered to donate a brand new car to Robertson, Leedy said. Monetary donations have come from as far as the Gaza Strip.
In a video that accompanied the story, Robertson said he is mentally and physically drained by Friday afternoon after a full week of work and commuting.
“It’s extremely tiring, there’s no question about it. But I think it’s also the will to do it,” he told the Free Press. “They say that ‘If there’s a will, there’s a way.’ That’s something I never forgot.”
Despite his efforts, though, Robertson seems to be aware of the reality of unemployment in the country. “I figure that even if my situation changes,” he added, “you never forget there are so many other people that are in my situation.”
“No one can say I didn’t pay my dues in life,” he said. “No one.”
In July 2013, Detroit filed for what was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history debt. The decision followed a declaration of financial emergency four months earlier. Then, last November, a federal judge approved Detroit’s plan to emerge from Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The historic plan allows the city to erase $7 billion of unfunded debt.
Another crowd-funding campaign established by the photographer behind the popular “Humans of New York” blog recently helped one middle school in Brooklyn, New York, quickly exceed a fundraising goal to visit Harvard University. In less than a week, nearly 35,000 people raised more than $1 million to send the students at Mott Hall Bridges Academy on a tour of Harvard. And there are still days remaining in their endeavor.
GoFundMe doesn’t require users to set a deadline for fundraisers. Leedy said he hopes to maintain the page as long as public interest continues.
Some people have questioned if Robertson would accept a car or money if the gift is presented to him. But he reportedly is comfortable with the idea.
“We have no idea how high this could go, so I don’t think it’s possible to make definitive plans,” said Leedy, who hopes to meet Robertson as early as Monday night. “It’s all about James’ needs and what James wants.”