About four years ago, a Catholic-school science teacher named Bobby Schindler appeared before a board meeting of the antiabortion group Florida Right to Life to tell the activists about his older sister, one Terri Schiavo. Attendees, who were gathered around tables at an Assemblies of God church in Winter Park, recall Schindler saying that his sister was disabled, and that her husband was basically trying to kill her.
"We were appalled," said Lynda Bell, a board member since 1989. "The first thing we did was, many of us began to open up our checkbooks."
The donations were small, Bell said -- maybe five or 10, each for $25 or $50.
The warm reception for Schindler was an early example of the way that a small network of Christian and other conservative activists has helped support his family's long fight, through steady financial gifts as well as logistical expertise and high-level contacts in Tallahassee and Washington.
The connection has proved mutually beneficial, with Schiavo's plight dominating the Web pages and e-mail alerts of groups such as Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, providing an emotional rallying point for activists.
"Sign up to receive daily family news updates!" says the Web site of Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs group founded by James C. Dobson.
The Family Research Council, which is based in Washington and describes itself as championing family and marriage, has sent daily updates for the past week, with subject lines such as "Terri Communicates" and "Villains and Heroes." Each includes a link for donations.
Lobbyists from the Florida group's parent, the National Right to Life Committee, later introduced Schindler to senators just off the floor, so he could make his case face to face and hand out CDs containing the now widely aired footage that the family holds out as evidence that Schiavo, 41, who is brain-damaged, still has critical faculties.
Megan Dillon, media relations director for National Right to Life, squired Schindler from camera to camera at the Capitol this weekend.
The group, founded in 1973 in response to the Roe v. Wade decision, also has picked up incidental expenses for Schindler during his Washington forays. "I know I bought him a meal," said Burke J. Balch, a lawyer who directs the committee's Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics.
The Schindler family's known sources of support have been more of a patchwork than those of Schiavo's husband, Michael, who received a medical malpractice award of $1 million in 1993. Of that, $700,000 was for his wife, and was placed in a trust. His lawyers have said most of the money has been spent on health and legal costs. Michael Schiavo received the remaining $300,000, court records show.
Lawyers for the family said Schiavo's parents have received no windfall, either from a large benefactor or from insurance or a legal settlement.
"Nobody has written a million-dollar check," said George E. Tragos, one of the lawyers who worked on the family's federal appeals. Tragos, a criminal-defense specialist in Clearwater, Fla., said he donates his time. He said there are at least five other lawyers on the case, most working free or at discounted rates.
In 2002, Schiavo's parents set up the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation Inc., which reported to Florida regulators that it collected $38,567 in 2003, the most recent year for which disclosure was required. The foundation spent $11,800 of that on legal fees. The group's major event was a golf tournament, according to the form.