Fundraiser for Detroit man who walks 21 miles a day to work reaches $230,000

After hearing about the story of a Detroit man who walks 21 miles to work, a crowd sourcing campaign has raised over $100K to buy him a car

Two days ago, James Robertson couldn't afford a car to drive to work more than 20 miles away from his home — and today he can afford a small fleet.

After the Detroit Free Press told of Robertson's arduous 21-mile trek to and from his suburban factory job, the story inspired thousands of donations from across the nation. A day later, the soft-spoken machine operator got to meet the computer student from Wayne State University who launched an Internet crowd-funding site to gather more than $230,000 (£150,000) — a figure expected to continue to climb today.

3.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

 

At Mr. B's Food & Spirits bar in downtown Rochester, the two hugged and were interviewed Monday night for national television shows and People magazine. The weathered factory guy, munching on pizza and wearing heavy work boots in which he's made countless walks to work, sat beside Evan Leedy, 19, of Macomb Township, a fresh-scrubbed techie who conceived the cash-churning GoFundMe web page in support of Robertson.

"I'm always going to be in your debt — I will never forget this," Robertson told Leedy, as the younger man in a sweater-hoodie shook his hand.

"I want to show you all the comments people are saying about you," Leedy replied, as the two bent over the teen's cellphone. Leedy read aloud samples of more than 3,700 posts whose writers made donations from $1 to hundreds of dollars to give to Robertson. His initial goal was $5,000.

Many of those who saw the Free Press story were so impressed with Robertson's work ethic — he has a perfect attendance record in years of factory work — "that they say you earned this money," Leedy told Robertson, 56. Another crowd-funding effort, launched by 31-year-old Chrysler-Fiat communications manager Jiyan Cadiz, raised nearly $6,000 before GoFundMe administrators asked Cadiz to redirect future donors to Leedy's page, Cadiz said in a text Monday night.

1.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Robertson said he was only half surprised by the outpouring of aid because, "I gotta say, this is Detroit, this is how people are in Detroit. They say Los Angeles is the city of angels. That's wrong. Detroit is the real city of angels."

The meeting and interviews were arranged by banker Blake Pollock, 47, of Rochester, who brought Robertson's story to the Free Press after seeing the intrepid walker trudge by in every sort of weather, mile after mile, through areas in Troy and Rochester Hills that no metro Detroit bus serves.

Robertson starts his daily commute by riding a SMART bus from Woodward near Holbrook in Detroit to a bus stop near Somerset Collection, an upscale mall in Troy. From there he walks about 7 miles — regardless of the weather — to the factory. At the end of his 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, he foots it back to the mall and catches the last bus in to Detroit, taking him to the State Fairground at the city's border. From there he walks home in the dark, about 5 miles.

8.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

His story has sparked conversations in the Detroit region about the challenges low-income workers face in getting to work in a region that has spotty public transportation and some of the highest automobile insurance in the nation.

His story also touched Leedy and thousands of others who have commented on the Free Press' Facebook page, called the newspaper or sent e-mails. People such as Gene Bowen of Las Vegas, who wrote: "Dedication and pride obviously drives this man to do what most everyone else would simply conclude was not worth $400 before taxes a week. He is a very special human being."

4.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

Referring to Robertson and Leedy, Pollock said: "I thought these guys should meet because this (fund-raising) is really going to change James' life." The UBS banker's commuting route in Oakland County overlaps with Robertson's commute, and so the banker has given Robertson lifts dozens of times this winter, ferrying the older man to his job at a plastic molding plant 23 miles from Robertson's home in central Detroit.

Now, Pollock is assembling a board of advisers to take charge of the rapidly mounting donations earmarked for Robertson, including offers of new and used cars. Robertson is not in a rush to receive any money because "he sees the need to manage this," Pollock said. Robertson is single but has a girlfriend, as well as sisters and other relatives in Detroit, some of whom had been out of touch until the flurry of publicity, the lifelong Detroiter said.

6.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

The board will set much of Robertson's windfall aside for future expenses, including auto insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and some of the cash likely will help him with medical and dental care, Pollock said.

A big step is deciding what kind of car would be best, Pollock said. Through the Free Press, dealers, including Rodgers Chevrolet, have offered free new cars.

Robertson's last car was an aging Honda that he told the Free Press quit in 2005, after which he couldn't afford a car on his hourly wage, now $10.55 (£6.93). With donations piling up, Robertson sounded ready to visit Ford country.

"I'm a Ford fan. I remember the Taurus. They look comfortable, nothing fancy. They're simple on the outside, strong on the inside — like me," he declared.

"I'm 6-foot and I think the Mustang's a little tight," he added, explaining that "I got in quite a few cars" during his annual visit last month to the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center.

7.jpg
(Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

"I mostly stay with American cars — Lincoln, Fords, GM, Dodge."

With the business-suited banker and hip-styled college junior looking on, Robertson peered calmly into the television lights of a cameraman filming for "Good Morning America" show and put his sudden abundance and celebrity into perspective.

"I have to be careful how I act about this. The same God who brings you all these blessings can take them away," he said.

"Hopefully, I'm ready for what happens."

This article originally appeared in USA Today

 

Comments