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How a Utah sports reporter accidentally raised $55,000 to help people during the holidays

Andy Larsen covers the Utah Jazz and is a data columnist during the coronavirus pandemic for the Salt Lake Tribune. (Courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune)

A reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune accidentally ended up with almost $55,000 in his Venmo account, just in time to help more than 1,000 people before the holidays.

Andy Larsen, a sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz and also writes about coronavirus statistics in a data column, said it started when he got a phone call from his mother in Riverton, Utah, several days before Thanksgiving.

“Andy, I found your SpongeBob box in your old bedroom,” Larsen said his mom told him. “There must be 60 bucks’ worth of quarters and nickels in here. Do you want to come and get it?”

Larsen, 29, drove from his home in Salt Lake City that day to pick up the colorful container he’d tossed his spare change into as a child. When he stopped at a credit union to cash the coins, he was shocked to learn that SpongeBob had swallowed a lot more than $60.

Somehow Larsen had managed to save $165.84 in the bright yellow bank he’d left behind in his childhood bedroom.

“As I was driving home, I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t have any big plans for this money,’ ” said Larsen, who is not married. “I wondered if I could give it away to some families on Twitter who might need some help.”

As a reporter on the NBA beat, Larsen has more than 27,000 Twitter followers. But when he posted about his SpongeBob savings on Nov. 23, he figured he’d hear from one or two families in need of a little help.

“I thought I’d be done with it and the money would be gone in half an hour,” he said.

That’s not what happened.

“So I had a big jar of coins hanging around,” Larsen wrote. “I went to the bank today & had them counted. $164.84. Rather than keeping it, I want to give that out to a few people who could use the help for their household’s Thanksgiving dinner or for Christmas presents. My DMs/replies are open.”

Within minutes, the requests started pouring in, he said. But they were outnumbered by something else: people who wanted to donate.

“A guy named Jeff Jones said, ‘Andy, I’d like to help — shoot me your Venmo and put me down for $150,’ ” recalled Larsen.

“He was the first one to donate — I was shocked that someone would do that,” he said. “Even more amazing was that minutes later, people began retweeting everywhere and sending me money out of the blue. It just exploded.”

By the time Larsen went to bed that night, the balance in his Venmo account was up to $40,358, he said. And about 24 hours later, he had almost $55,000, donated by 992 people.

His Twitter feed was also full of requests from dozens of Utah residents who needed help themselves or knew of somebody else who could use a financial boost before the holidays. Larsen decided to quickly put together spread sheets to track the donations and the requests for help. He then gave his project a name: The Exclamation Point Aid Brigade.

Ashli Hansen of Midvale, Utah, was among those who alerted Larsen to people who were struggling and in need of financial help.

“I nominated a family who was hit hard by covid unemployment and subsequent health problems, and my mom nominated a woman in our neighborhood whose husband died suddenly, leaving her to care for five children,” said Hansen, 40.

As she watched the outpouring of support on Larsen’s Twitter feed, Hansen said she was touched by the kindness of strangers.

“It was incredible to see the generosity beget more generosity,” she said.

In all, said Larsen, he ended up with 192 messages from people asking for help.

Some of the stories were heartbreaking, involving people who’d lost family members to covid-19 or had lost their jobs and couldn’t afford to pay medical bills or buy Christmas presents for their kids, he said.

“I never set out to get into fundraising, but when this happened, I wanted to make sure that the money directly helped those most in need,” said Larsen. “It was a long process to decide who would get what, but it was important to me to verify every story and help as many people as possible.”

On Dec. 13, after he’d narrowed down the requests and sent payments to people via PayPal, Larsen wrote a story in the Tribune detailing how he’d spent each dollar. The people who asked for help were mostly Utah residents, except for a few NBA fans who wrote in with requests for Christmas help from out of state, he said.

Among the cash recipients were 64 families that needed help for the holidays ($13,560), 15 families that needed help to pay rent ($11,486), 26 people who needed money for car repairs or to keep electricity, heat or water on ($7,769), nine households in need of groceries ($1,632), and dozens of families with staggering medical debt.

Rather than send large sums to people with massive medical bills, Larsen decided to send each family $200, then donate $10,000 to RIP Medical Debt, a national nonprofit that reduces medical debt for the neediest families in each state.

The organization buys bundles of debt from collection agencies at a cheap price, said Larsen, then simply forgives the debt.

“For every $10,000 donated, they can forgive $1 million in debt,” he said. “I was told that the $10,000 we donated will end up paying off debt for 400 to 500 Utahns. So that’s a huge gift.”

Larsen also donated money to several local charities, including a group that provides discounted restaurant meals, a grocery-shopping network for people who can’t leave home during the pandemic and a high school food pantry that was running low on supplies.

“I cried when he contacted me,” said Meg Thunell, who had been trying to coordinate a food drive for Kearns High School in Salt Lake County. Larsen gave her $1,000 to buy groceries for the school’s pantry, which is used by teens from low-income households.

“The compounded goodness of all those people giving without even knowing where it was going restored my faith in people after a long and rough year,” said Thunell, 42.

“I’ve told everyone I know about ‘Twitter Guy’ and his contribution to the food drive,” she said. “It blows their minds every time.”

Larsen said that reactions like Thunell’s have made his sojourn into holiday giving more than worthwhile.

“This taught me a lot about the people we interact with in our daily lives,” he said. “A lot of people needed help, and a lot of other people stepped up to help.”

“And to think that if my mom hadn’t called me about my SpongeBob bank, I never would have known about it.”

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