What started as a modest goal – raising a few thousand for a bullied school monitor – has morphed into a half-million-dollar fund and media circus, complete with praise, apologies, a piggy-back fundraiser and questions over what the extra money will be used for.
Max Sidorov reacted to an unpleasant 10-minute video online of children berating Karen Klein, a cash-strapped widow, on a school bus in New York state. After he appealed to strangers to give her the trip of her dreams, news of the fundraiser was picked up by international media outlets and donations poured in.
"I thought no way we could even get the goal. I thought a few thousand to send her somewhere nice," Mr. Sidorov said Friday, one of numerous interviews he has done since starting the campaign. "I thought, wouldn't it be a nice idea to send her on a nice vacation, take her away from this torment."
The effort clearly touched a nerve, amid increasing signs that bullying is seen as an issue that needs to be addressed. More than 23,000 people had contributed by late morning Friday. In a typical comment at the site, one person wrote that he could barely watch the video without crying. "I am angry and outraged by what those despicable little monsters did to you," he added.
Police in a Rochester suburb had to step up patrols near the houses of several boys, the Associated Press reported.
"They've received death threats," Police Captain Steve Chatterton was quoted saying Thursday. "Their families have been threatened. We have custody of one of their cellphones, and he had over 1,000 missed calls and 1,000 text messages threatening him. And he's 13 years old. That must stop."
The father of one boy on the bus told a television station his son had written a letter of apology. But Robert Helm was worried the problem may go beyond grounding or other normal punishment and could require professional intervention.
"I'm sorry, this is not the way I raised my kids," Mr. Helm said. "I never would have, in my wildest dreams, think that they were ever capable of anything like this."
With 29 days before the fundraiser expires, more than 100 times the goal of $5,000 already had been donated. The total was still climbing on Friday and there were no plans to move up the campaign's end-date.
Which means that Ms. Klein – unless she dreams of space tourism – will have far more than she needs for a trip. There have been hints that the additional money could be used to let her retire, though she has expressed a desire to continue the job, which pays about $15,000 annually.
Some are calling for the extra money to be used for some sort of anti-bullying initiative. That will be Ms. Klein's call to make.
"It all goes to her," Mr. Sidorov said. "She will decide what to do with it. It's her money."
There will also be money for Mr. Sidorov to use. On Thursday, the campaign he started spawned a cascade effect. Someone else started a second fundraiser, a pat on the back for Mr. Sidorov that already exceeded its goal of $2,500. On Friday morning it passed $4,000.
The second campaign – designed to "pay it forward ... encourage all the Maxes out there" – sparked a mostly positive, but somewhat mixed, reaction. One person called it "in such poor taste" while others slammed critics as cynics. "Thank you Max for showing us all that one person can make a difference! hope this buys you a few coffees," one typical person wrote.
But Mr. Sidorov's role itself was being called into question as well.
The video initially was spotted by visitors to the websites Reddit and 4chan, who helped identify the school in question. They sent messages to school officials and local New York media. They also scoured Ms. Klein's social media presence, learning that she lost her husband 17 years ago and did not have much money.
It was Mr. Sidorov, though, who took the step of starting the fundraiser. On Friday he said he would have been happy had someone else played that role.
"I never wanted the attention," he said. "The only reason I'm doing this is to spread some awareness."