The nonprofit tasked with allocating more than $11.8 million donated to the victims and families of the Aug. 3 terror attack in El Paso completed its disbursements a few weeks before the anniversary of the tragedy.
One Fund El Paso was established last August by the Paso del Norte Community Foundation and the El Paso Community Foundation to oversee the equitable distribution of funds meant to support the victims and survivors who were directly impacted by the mass shooting that targeted Latinos at the Cielo Vista Wamart where 23 people were killed and dozens injured.
Stephanie Karr, coordinator of One Fund El Paso, spoke with El Paso Matters to discuss the lessons she learned serving in the role and to share the takeaways that may help other communities in the future.
Karr, one of El Paso’s most respected nonprofit executives, was retired from her position as executive director for the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence for about a year before she was called upon to serve as the One Fund coordinator.
“None of us in El Paso had any experience with anything like this,” Karr said. “We were shaking our heads thinking — what do we do first?”
Setting priorities and asking for help
Karr said one of the first things she did was establish a task force of about 20 community leaders representing government, law, health care and nonprofits to ensure a diverse skillset to oversee the distribution of funds.
They also reached out to the National Compassion Fund, which has assisted similar efforts in other cities that have suffered from mass casualty incidents.
The first goal was to get emergency aid to families where there had either been a death or an injured person who had been hospitalized.
“We did that right away, recognizing that families needed to buy groceries, had to put gas in the car and had rent to pay and just immediate needs,” Karr said. “That allowed those families just a little bit of breathing room.”
About $315,000 was dispersed from August to November in the form of gift cards and money orders to aid those families.
The second goal was to get as much of the remaining funds donated to the families before the end of the year, Karr said.
Through an application process that was validated by the National Compassion Fund, 390 beneficiaries were approved. Karr said they were able to distribute a majority of those funds before the end of December. The funding for the remaining two beneficiaries, which was delayed because of legal requirements, was recently approved.
“I think all of the money has now been distributed before the 12 months is up and the anniversary date,” Karr said. “That really speaks to the commitment of the task force to get it done.”
Karr said obstacles presented themselves early on.
Most of those obstacles were in the form of legal issues that required trusts to be set up for beneficiaries who were minors or for families that were on some kind of public benefit, Karr said.
“We didn’t anticipate how many people were going to need these special needs trusts set up,” Karr said. “That required attorneys that were willing to do pro bono work to get the trusts set up, especially for minors. There were legal loopholes that we had not exactly anticipated and that took an additional amount of time.”
Some of the families that received funds were Mexican nationals living in Juárez. Karr said they had to ensure there was complete equity in that process.
She said about six families in Mexico were given the same emergency assistance and funding for the qualifying categories as El Pasoans.
“We had counsel from the Mexican Consulate on our task force (and) they were really helpful in making sure we communicated with our families there,” Karr said, adding that the consulate helped ensure the funds were delivered to the right people.
Aside from legal issues, there were also family issues that had to be dealt with.
“The community should know that families are complicated and family relationships are complicated, then when you have a traumatic event happen to a family and there is money also involved that things aren’t always exactly smoothe,” she said. “That will happen in any community.”
Karr said they navigated those issues as best they could while keeping in line with the established criteria.
She said part of the problem is that only a few families had their wills set up, which caused One Fund to have to rely on the family to determine what percentages of funds were to be distributed among beneficiaries, or rely on state guidelines.
“My guideline has always been, make sure you have a will,” Karr said.
Karr said the electronic application process presented some difficulties because not all of the families had access to computers or smartphones which were used to make transfers.
Some families also did not have bank accounts, but Karr said they were able to address all of the various circumstances through their partnerships.
“We got the money to them — sometimes it just took a little longer,” Karr said.
Advice for other communities
Karr said she recommends that if another community has to go through this type of tragedy that they quickly decide that one fund where donations are managed.
Both the El Paso Community Foundation and the Paso del Norte Health Foundation set up victim relief funds the afternoon of Aug. 3. Karr said people were donating to either or both of those funds. On Aug. 5 the two foundations met and it was determined that the funds would become One Fund El Paso. Each foundation held funds, but they were ultimately combined.
Karr said many organizations did fund-raisers, small and large. The funds were donated to either foundation, with the understanding that they would go into One Fund El Paso.
“For us it was very important that both foundations come together and unite and work together. Otherwise we would have had two different relief funds and two competing ways that money was going to be distributed,” Karr said.
Joining forces enabled One Fund El Paso to send the message to the community that the process would be fair and transparent, she said.
She also said working with the National Compassion Fund was important.
The task force set the criteria for applicants and the National Compassion Fund was tasked with validating those applications so the process was unbiased.
Karr said she also recommends community involvement.
The nonprofit held a community town hall about one month after the attack to discuss the process and get feedback which drew about 200 participants.
“I think all the involvement of the community (and) making sure that we were keeping the people informed and knew what the process was (was important),” Karr said.