FERRISBURGH — Porter Hospital midwife Martha Redpath had just returned to her Ferrisburgh home from a long night attending two births when husband Gary Lange asked what she would like to do for her 52nd birthday, which was coming up a couple days later on Feb. 3.
What Redpath ended up getting for her birthday — albeit belatedly on Feb. 13 — could be called priceless, although it came with a figure: $11,116.
That’s the amount a party the couple hosted at their home for about 60 local residents raised for a cause dear to Redpath’s heart: Midwives for Haiti. (See related story for more information on the organization.)
The couple asked their acquaintances to offer goods and services for a silent auction, and they ended up with 57 items that sold for between $30 and $1,350. And two people donated $1,000 each.
Lange, 55, and Redpath said they were overwhelmed by a response that they believe is the real story.
“What impressed me was the kindness and generosity in our community,” said Redpath in an interview last week. “The other night when we closed the bids we gathered together, and we just had this moment of silence for the people of Haiti. And it just brings me to tears even now. It was just so incredible that people get it.”
Lange, an attorney, used email to spread Redpath’s idea of local people sharing resources to create cash to donate.
“Martha’s concept was that we each give to each other in this community so that everyone’s helping their neighbors here in some way, or offering something that their neighbors could use, and that creates this fund for Haiti,” he said.
The seed had actually first been sown in 1994, when Redpath volunteered in Haiti.
“Ever since then there’s a photo of the children of Haiti on our refrigerator, and they say, ‘Don’t forget us,’” Redpath said. “It is an unforgettable place because the poverty is so completely devastating.”
She had been longing to volunteer with Midwives for Haiti, but before the earthquake she had ruled out this year. When tragedy struck, Redpath wanted to act, and supporting Midwives for Haiti felt right.
“They’ve been there before, and they’ll continue to be there, and they’re working with local systems,” she said.
Then came Lange’s birthday question, and it sparked the idea on the spot.
“I had about two hours of sleep in two days, and Gary says to me, ‘What do you want to do for your birthday,’” Redpath said. “I hadn’t even been thinking about it, but I said, ‘Let’s do a fund-raiser for Haiti.’ And he said, OK, who do you want to invite, and we started the list of people.”
By Feb. 6, the first 10 or so offers arrived, including a guided birding outing and a weekend at a home on North Carolina’s inland waterway.
Expectations were still modest. Lange remembered thinking at that point that paying for a caterer (Vergennes eatery Three Squares, which donated labor) and making grand plans might not pan out.
“When was the panic? Maybe the Saturday before when we had 10 offerings,” Lange said.
By Feb. 11, there were still just 20 offerings, with the latest including two dozen cookies a month for six months, boat cruises, and paintings.
But then the fact that Lange’s emails had been forwarded really kicked in.
“And then it just goes geometric. It just goes nuts,” Lange said.
By 7 p.m. on Feb. 12, the night before the big event, there were 26 offerings. By noon of the Saturday, 42 people had signed on, and 15 more made offers in the final hours.
There were donations of free gardening labor, weeks on Martha’s Vineyard, hand-made tables, chocolate sauce, a year’s worth of birthday cakes for a family, catered dinners, babysitting, a cord of split wood, a quilt, pottery, and even a sailboat trip on Lake Champlain with frills including sea chanties, Labatt’s ale and Fritos.
On the Saturday night, sheets with each offering dotted the walls of the couple’s home, and the highest written bid at the end of the evening won.
For $35, Lange earned the right to drive a vintage tractor in the Vergennes Memorial Day parade.
“I was outbid on a few at the last minute, but we did OK,” he said.
Lange, who also bid for about a dozen people who couldn’t make it, said all were generous.
ABOVE AND BEYOND
“The donors were giving a lot, and the bidders were giving a lot,” he said. “And the way we got over 11 grand was people coming in after the fact and saying, ‘Listen, I authorized you to bid on X, but I didn’t get the bid, so here’s a hundred bucks. I authorized you to bid on Y, and I got it for less than I thought I would, so here’s an extra hundred bucks.”
Lange said Haiti’s geographic proximity to the U.S., the extent of the damage and the intensive media coverage all figured into people’s willingness to respond, while Redpath said many in the area know someone personally who has volunteered there.
Regardless of the exact motives, they said people were ready to give despite Vermont’s own economic woes.
“I think people want to be involved,” Redpath said. “By getting involved, it diminishes that sense of overwhelming despair, and every little bit really does make a difference.”
Ultimately, Lange and Redpath said the way they see it is not that they hosted a party that raised a lot of money for Haiti, but that local people made it a successful event.
“All we did was sort of offer the venue,” Redpath said. “As somebody said, ‘Wow, it was just a portal of giving.’ I said, ‘You are right.’ It wasn’t about us. It was just about our community. And what a cool place we are living in.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.