|("Black in White" by Luke Chueh)|
Let us take a moment to consider the strange, sad story of how Marissa's Bunny lost its way.
If you want a pretty complete telling of the story, go check out a post on Love That Max. In particular, read the comments, because much of the story plays out there.
(Shannon Des Roches Rosa sums it up very nicely, too.)
The short version is this: Marissa's Bunny tells the story of little Marissa, born in 2007 with a pretty terrible condition called West syndrome, or "infantile spasms". The blog is written by her father, Mike Wuerthele, and over time has garnered quite a following. A lot of people care very deeply for Marissa.
Last year, Mike turned to that caring community for help. He said he needed to raise money for surgery for Marissa. Thanks to the generosity of people in the gaming and disability communities, Mike raised almost thirty thousand dollars. It strikes me that the folks who helped Mike were very similar to those who helped Schuyler get her speech device six years ago. I suspect that some of them WERE the same people.
Here's where things get murky. Mike announced that he was starting the Marissa's Bunny Foundation, and with matching funds from his employer (who wished to remain anonymous), parents of kids with special needs could apply to receive free iPads for their children. This application process included submitting a great deal of extremely personal information. Forty parents were selected, and they were overjoyed.
Well, of course they were. In addition to the great need being filled, things like this are rare for parents of kids with disabilities. Generosity and good news are like buried treasure to these families. Enthusiastic parents began making plans with their therapists and school teams to incorporate these iPads into their kids' treatment and curriculum. Then they waited; many were notified that their iPads had shipped.
You know where this is going, I know.
As of this writing, not a single family has received an iPad. Mike has given a number of different stories, about shipping errors and legal obstacles and even threats made against him and his family, causing him to stop any shipments at the advice of his lawyers. He offered to refund donations to anyone who asked, but then claimed that his access to PayPal had been restricted. As more and more people compared notes, the extent to which Mike had been covering his tracks and telling outright lies became clear.
Finally, it all came down to this, an email sent yesterday to the "winners":
There are no longer any iPads. I've never had access to the matching funds I've been promised. Something along the way changed and I'm getting hung out to dry by my bosses.
As to my obliqueness about my bosses and the company I work for, If their identities ever got out, long ago they promised I'd lose my job, my insurance, and take us for everything we have making Marissa's surgery impossible to afford. If I keep my mouth shut and the fact that I got screwed never gets out in any way then I keep my job, and my insurance, and they've promised to pay for Marissa's surgery after we give everything we can.
My reputation is now screwed with the SN community but I have to be able to give Marissa the best chance for as close to normal as possible and will happily work under whatever conditions I need to. I'll dance with the Devil if it gets Marissa what she needs.
We're not going to fundraise any more. There won't be any more giveaways on Marissasbunny for special needs or otherwise. I'm still going to update with Marissa's surgical preps and that kind of thing, but that's all. Marissasbunny is going back to what it was before they got involved, back when many of you started reading. No more promotions, just Marissa and her brother's story.
There are the first words that are my own and not through a corporate lawyer since Thursday.
There will be aftershocks to this story, I'm sure, especially since a number of people have apparently contacted law enforcement. As of this writing, Mike has said that he will be personally giving an iPad to a single winner this afternoon, with photos and no doubt some balloons and bullshit-flavored cupcakes. But I think this story is mostly over.
So what happened here? Was it all a scam, and if it was, to what end? No one paid for an iPad or a raffle ticket, but apparently there were pleas for matching funds funds from Mike's apparently mustache-twirling, comic book villain bosses. That request raised about $4400, funds that have now simply disappeared, along with other money raised for various reasons during the promotion. And the Marissa's Bunny Foundation? Does not appear to exist at all.
Does Marissa herself exist? Did that original almost thirty grand actually help her receive needed surgery? I'm going to step on my swelling cynicism for a moment and say that yeah, I believe that Marissa probably does exist and that Mike's original plea for money was legit. If Mike is anything like Julie and I, he must have been astonished at the generosity of a bunch of strangers on the internet.
Perhaps that opened a door to a dark place for him, a sense that "If it was that easy, then maybe..." Or maybe he was so desperate to be someone's hero that he kept this going to feed on the accolades and the gratitude for the work he was doing. Work that we now can see he probably wasn't doing at all.
I guess there are some lessons to be learned here, beyond the old "trust but verify". After all, when Julie and I and a good friend did a fundraiser to help buy Schuyler her speech device, those of you who donated took it on faith that we were telling the truth. As much as I've welcomed the democratization of the AAC process that the iPad has potentially brought to our families, this might just be the flip side. When you look carefully at Mike's whole "Free iPads for special needs kids!!!" promotion, it fails the sniff test on multiple levels. A speech-language therapist might have picked up on that, because an SLP doesn't exist on scraps of hope like special needs parents do. Situations like this serve as a reminder that regardless of the product or the therapy, we need as much professional guidance as we can get.
For me, however, there's a larger lesson here, a reminder that there is an even greater equalizer at work. People talk about the disability community as if we all gather at the VFW hall on Fridays and approve the minutes from the last meeting while practicing our secret handshake. And those of us who live in this world are treated like saints. "God chose YOU for this very very very special job!"
But our reality is one of blind selection, one of the few truly equal experiences in the universe. A very fair unfairness, perhaps. Membership in this community is open to Kennedys and Palins alike. We celebrate writers like Rupert Isaacson, but we struggle to make sense of someone like Arthur Miller. Many of us talk about how we're not special, we are just doing what any parent would do for their child, but we know that many don't.
Most of all, we like to believe that our commonalities provide a kind of sanctuary, and that when we hear a story like Marissa's and we meet someone like her father, we believe we can trust them. Because to face the alternative, to admit that a father would see his broken, beautiful daughter as a device by which to cheat his fellow special needs parents? That's a bitter pill to swallow. And we've forced down a lot of bitter medicine already.
I have a confession to make now. Honestly, I hope that there is no Marissa, or at the very least that she's a distant niece of Mike's, or a neighbor's kid. I find myself hoping that this is a full-blown scam, an attempt by an outsider to swindle families of kids with disabilities.
Because as bad as that would be, I find it worlds more troubling to imagine such a cynical act being committed by one of our own.