When fundraising gets personal … a grassroots example

in Fundraising,Grassroots Fundraising

This is a heart-warming story of friends and strangers helping someone in need through grassroots fundraising. 

First a bit of background
If you enjoy trains, history, and riding on scenic railways then you might know about “Helmstetter’s Curve.”  John Helmstetter – one of the last full-time farmers in Allegheny County, Maryland – occupies one of the most famous train photo locations in the Eastern United States known as “Helmstetter’s Curve.” 

What is unique and so picturesque is the fact that the rail line makes a sweeping horseshoe curve around his farm.  In years past this area was part of the main line of the former Western Maryland Railway. Today however, only 6 miles of the railway’s climb through the Alleghenies remains active. 

In fact my husband and I rode the steam-powered Western Maryland Scenic Railroad (which is also a nonprofit), along this route in the fall of 2008.  It’s an enjoyable ride from Cumberland to Frostburg, MD and I was snapping away at the shutter as we chugged around “Helmstetter’s Curve.”

The barn was the focal point of the photos from the train rounding the curve.  His barn and his farm had long ago become a famous train landmark partly because Helmstetter had been “going out of his way” to accomodate train photographers.  He has been  a true friend of rail fans and historians for many years.

But the unofficial partnership was about to be tested.  According to an article in Trains Magazine, Helmstetter’s famous 100-year old barn burned on the night of July 9, 2009.   

Sorry to say the cause is believed to be arson.  And John Helmstetter was injured as he tried to free his livestock from the barn which was totally destroyed.  He lost 22 cows, farm equipment, and longtime companion, Teddy . . . his Border collie dog.  John was so upset he seriously considered giving up as a farmer.

Next the fundraising “friendraising” began
Helmstetter’s relatives and neighbors started to pitch in to help while the barn was still smoldering.  They brought hay to feed the remaining livestock.

 News of the fire and all the losses John Helmstetter suffered quickly spread among rail fans.          

News of the fire and all the losses John Helmstetter suffered quickly spread among rail fans.  They rallied to his aid.  As stated in Trains Magazine . . .

“Carl Franz of Gaithersburg, Md., and Bill Larduskey of Baltimore immediately stepped forward. Together, they had run over 30 photo specials on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and had formed a close friendship with Helmstetter over the past 12 years. They realized that they were in a unique position to lead the response effort, thanks to their large mailing list of trip past patrons who would be eager and willing to assist John. Together they formed the Helmstetter Farm Fund Committee, along with Steve Barry of Railfan & Railroad Magazine. They set up a bank account in John’s name and created” a nonprofit called the HelmstetterFarm.org  

They also enlisted the aid of another nonprofit, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.  Several photo charter train runs have been made with HelmstetterFarm.org as the prime beneficiary.  They’ve also been selling 12×18-inch train photos, DVDs of Western Maryland trains, and more.

Bottom line: As of Feb 1, 2010 just over $42,000 has been raised.  And along the way there was enough to replace the barn.  Last November 12th Helmstetter’s new barn was raised in ONE day by Amish builders hired from nearby Pennsylvania.

Why did this grassroots fundraising work?

  • Rail fans are very passionate
  • It’s a human interest story about a man who befriended rail fans.  And those fans returned the favor when he needed help.
  • The methods used to raise money engaged donors in what they loved – trains.  They could ride a train, buy train photos, buy train DVDs, and simply donate money to restore an historical train landmark.
  • Franz and Larduskey reached out to their own networks which then spread the word farther. 

John Helmstetter isn’t completely back to full farming operation.  There’s still equipment to replace.  But he has a revived spirit for farming and for rail fans.  He’s happy and hopeful about the future once again.