Oakland Church's Unique Fundraiser Helps Fund Orphanage in Africa

Reverend Mark Wiesner is a pastor at the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Oakland, California. After a visit to Kenya, Rev. Wiesner was inspired to help fund a badly needed dormitory for an orphanage. But how to raise the funds? Answering that question sent Rev. Wiesner and his parishioners on a journey that relied on the goodness in people.

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One Sunday in February, Rev. Wiesner withdrew about $12,100 from the church account. With some help, he placed varying amounts of money into 400 envelopes. The amount ranged from $15 to $100. Rev. Wiesner passed out the envelopes to his parishioners and asked them to use the money to help raise more money for the orphanage. He gave them 90 days. It was a big risk, but it paid off.

A few months later, at the end of May, Rev. Wiesner collected the funds and found that his flock had raised over $65,000. We spoke with him about his experiment, how he came up with the idea, and how people chose to raise money, even in these tough economic times.

"I heard the story on a radio station. Another church, a Baptist church in Texas, had done it. I had just come back from Kenya and was looking for ideas on how to raise money. I heard this story, and thought, 'That's it.' What happens if I give people money and ask them to go to work with it?"

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Rev. Wiesner wasn't too concerned that people would take the money and run. Before handing out his church's $12,100, he spoke with other churches who had done similar things. "Everyone I spoke to, it always succeeded," he said. They got back "three to five times" what they'd given out. With that in mind, Rev. Wiesner was anticipating about $30,000 to $40,000. The church ended up with $65,000.

That was all thanks to the creativity and dedication of his parishioners. Four people had a yard sale and raised over $800. "They put up a sign that said, please take our stuff. Donations accepted. We're building an orphanage in Kenya."

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A 10-year-old girl who got $25 in her envelope did a lemonade stand with a friend. "They put up a sign that said, 'Cookies and lemonade for free. Donations accepted.' When she was out of lemonade, her $25 had become $184." Another person used his money to buy candy. Then, at the office, he told people, "If you want to buy money from the candy machine, go ahead. But if you buy from me, the money goes toward this orphanage. When he was done, his $50 became $1,500."

Two brothers, 8 and 10, gave away their baby toys and accepted donations. They took in $1,200. Another young boy held a backyard carnival for his friends. "Basketball, silly-string fights, all that stuff. He took his $60 and turned into $464." Others have done plays, made soap, organized outdoor movie nights, you name it.

"The people," Rev. Wiesner said, "began to realize they can make a difference. You don't have to be a millionaire or a billionaire to change peoples lives." Indeed, there was no one person who gave a $65,000 check. These were hundreds of people doing what they could.

The construction will, hopefully, be underway soon. "At this point, we've raised enough money to build the building. Now we want to equip the building with tables, beds, chairs, and linens."

Rev. Wiesner hopes that this is the start of a long relationship between his church and the orphanage he and his church helped. "I don't look at this as a happy ending," he said. "It's a happy beginning."