BUFFALO, N.Y. — Neighbors, survivors, and victims' families from the mass shooting at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue shared stories of loss and struggle, as well as offered advice to the steering committee leading the distribution effort for the Buffalo 5/14 Survivors Fund.
The fund created to assist those impacted by the racist tragedy has received over 13,000 donations and raised $4.7 million according to committee co-chair Reverend Mark Blue.
The steering committee and the National Compassion Fund, which is managing the Survivors Fund, held a public meeting Thursday night to answer questions as well as field comments and concerns about the fund's draft protocol, which was released in June.
"There is not enough money in the entire world to bring back the people killed or erase the things that people saw and endured but we want to extend that gift so people can do what they want with it," said National Compassion Fund Executive Director Jeff Dion.
The draft protocol is essentially a list of rules and guidelines that once finalized will dictate who, how and when individuals will receive assistance. Dion went point by point through the nine-page document at the start of the meeting and answered several questions even before members of the public were invited to speak. For example, of the 13 victims who died or were injured at the Tops on Jefferson Avenue, Dion said eight had already received advance payments from the fund.
Over a dozen individuals including survivors spoke during the meeting at City Honors. A grandmother asked if her granddaughter, whose car was hit by a bullet in the Tops parking lot, would qualify. A young man wondered if his mom could fill out his application while he is away at Navy boot camp. Both were told yes.
Julie Harwood was in the Tops store on May 14 with her daughter Londin, who hid in a cooler during the shooting. She spoke through tears about the trauma she's been going through and explained how hard it has been for certain individuals since the tragedy.
"I understand what everybody is saying that I was across the street, that I was this, I was that. I understand that because it's different things for different people but I still can not sleep at night I still can not go back to work," Harwood said.
She thanked the committee for thinking of individuals like herself and including individuals who were in the store in the draft distribution process.
Michelle Spight who lost her cousin Margus Morrison offered a different perspective about the process and said she was "livid" with Tops Markets for not including the families in the fund-picking process, to begin with. Although she recognized the tremendous work the fund has done.
The National Compassion Fund, based in Alexandria, Virginia has assisted in more than 20 other tragedies like the Buffalo massacre, including the Pulse Nightclub and Las Vegas shootings.
"You [Tops] again did not consult the families and you made a decision. [addressing Jeff Dion] I understand this was a critical effort and I tell you, this is not personal but I'm going to get it all out," Spight said.
Outside the meeting, Spight and several other family members of the victims told 2 On Your Side they have found it hard to trust the system, that they feel failed them in the first place, and made the Tops location on Jefferson Avenue a target. According to investigators, the alleged gunman went to the store in East Buffalo looking to kill black people and now faces hate crime charges.
Buffalo remains a highly segregated city.
While other speakers said they felt powerless and as though no one from the fund has provided real help, Pulse Nightclub survivor Tiara Parker, who sits on the steering committee, shared how she fought through those similar feelings with an audience now dealing with their own tragedy.
"I know what that's like I've been there I've had the same thought but it's also about teaching survival to gain power. To gain their power back. It's never about somebody just wanting to ignore them or think they're not being heard but we have to take care of everyone," Parker said.
The steering committee is set to release final guidelines for distributing the 5/14 Survivors Fund on July 26. Those who qualify for assistance will be able to apply via an online application from August 16 to Sept. 14. The fund will continue to accept donations through Sept. 20.