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Who's the angel?

A $100-million anonymous donation creates a mystery in struggling Erie, Pa.

Published November 13, 2007


Mike Batchelor invited the heads of 46 charities into his Erie, Pa., downtown office for one-on-one meetings to personally deliver the news. Nearby, on a small table, sat a box of tissues. 

And then he proceeded: A donor had given a staggering $100-million to the Erie Community Foundation, and all of the charities would receive a share. 

That was when the tears began to flow - and the mystery began - in this struggling old industrial city of 102,000 on Lake Erie, where the donor is known only as "Anonymous Friend."

Batchelor, president of the Erie Community Foundation, has been sworn to secrecy and will allow only that the donor worked with the organization for years to identify deserving recipients before the announcement reported Oct. 6 by the Erie Times-News.

Is the donor dead or alive? No comment, Batchelor says. What is the donor's connection to Erie? No comment.

The talk about the gift has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks: As much as everyone here would like to know their benefactor's identity, many are also reluctant to pry.

"My feeling is that we're not honoring the donor if we spend time speculating about it," says Rebecca Brumagin, executive director at the Achievement Center, which provides physical therapy and other services to children. The center, which serves 3,200 children a year, will get $2-million.

"The needs are really great. So we will be able to help more children because of this," Brumagin says.

Kitty Cancilla cried when she learned the homeless shelter where she is executive director will get $2-million. Its previous largest donation was $25,000.

Even now, Cancilla clutches a balled-up tissue and fights back tears as she talks about the gift.

Cancilla says she is unable even to speculate on whom the donor could be, and prefers not to try.

"It's disrespectful to the friend," she said. "To me, that's a spiritual thing."

The 46 local nonprofits will each get about $1-million to $2-million, for a total of $85-million. The recipients include a food bank, a women's center, a group for the blind and three universities. Payments would be made over three years, likely starting in 2009, and the remaining $15-million will go to unidentified organizations outside of Erie.

The city - and the entire county of 280,000 - can use the money.

Erie was once a bustling iron and steel town, and later also made machinery, plastics, paper and furniture. But many factories closed or moved overseas. The paper mill, which employed more than 2,000 people in the 1950s, shut down in 2002 after more than 100 years in business.

The city has a growing service industry and has tried to remake itself as a tourist destination. But its poverty rate is about 19 percent, twice the national average.

Median household income is $31,196, compared with $48,451 nationally. As of 2006, the city had an estimated 400 homeless people.

Information from the Erie Times-News was used in this report.

[Last modified November 12, 2007, 22:47:10]

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