This spring, high school senior Harris Stolzenberg and his 13-year-old brother Michael, a quadruple-amputee, started a charity called Mikey’s Run with the noble, if idealistic, objective of raising $1 million on their own for victims of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
On Monday, the Stolzenberg brothers’ goal became much more realistic, thanks to a $100,000 donation from Oprah Winfrey.
The road to Oprah’s mega-donation started in earnest on May 30, when talk show host, media mogul and philanthropist mentioned the Stolzenberg brothers’ project during a commencement address at Harvard University, two stops up the red line from MIT, where Harris, 18, will start as a freshman this fall.
After learning of Oprah’s shout-out, the Stolzenbergs’ school, Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., encouraged the brothers to reach out to Oprah, and through a series of connections — “a friend of a friend of a friend,” Harris said — the boys eventually made contact with a representative at Winfrey’s Harpo Productions company.
Then on Monday morning, the call came, initially to the teens’ mother, Laura, and then later to Michael, who was eating breakfast and watching TV when the phone rang. “(Oprah) called my mom and she said, ‘Can I talk to Michael?’ but we actually weren’t with my mom at the time, so she called back in an hour,” Harris Stolzenberg told FOXSports.com Tuesday.
“We didn’t know what she wanted to talk about, we thought it would just be a normal conversation, and then she said, ‘I want to donate $100,000 to your charity,’ and that was a complete, awesome surprise.”
Said Michael of the conversation: “She started talking about how she mentioned us at Harvard, and how she was inspired, and I felt really good about that. Then she went right in about how she was going to donate.”
The brothers had previously received a $25,000 contribution from the Harry T. Mangurian, Jr. Foundation, a charity started in 1999 by Mangurian, the late former owner of the Boston Celtics.
But Oprah’s donation doubled Mikey’s Run’s previous total, and as of Tuesday morning, Mikey’s Run had raised $200,011 since launching on April 22.
“Michael and I were just speechless, and we couldn’t thank her enough,” Harris said. “We started this with the goal of raising $1 million, but we knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. Our mom actually laughed at us and said, ‘If you can get $1,000, you should be happy.’ It’s still kind of surreal.”
The idea for Mikey’s Run was dreamed up by Michael, himself, in the days after the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15. The foundation’s mission, "to give the families affected by the tragedy … the support they need to recover and regain independence,” was a personal one for Michael, who just finished his seventh grade year at Pine Crest.
When Michael was 8, he nearly died of a bacterial infection that kept him in the hospital for seven weeks. Michael went through septic shock, spent two weeks in a coma and developed gangrene in his limbs. After a month of waiting to see if his cells would regenerate, the decision was made to have Michael’s hands and lower legs amputated.
“He didn’t complain one time,” Harris Stolzenberg said of his brother. “He kind of just shrugged it off and said, ‘I’m going to make the most of this.’ If anyone was sad about it, it was my parents and myself, and my other brother (15-year-old Justin). But he just wanted to be looked at like a normal kid.”
Michael would spend the next year going to physical therapy, regaining his strength and learning to use his prosthetic legs. “It was very difficult for me,” he said. “I usually didn’t like going to it. It was very painful and not much fun.” Within a month and a half of getting his prosthetics, Michael was standing up, and he was skiing two months after that.
Within a year, Michael was back on the field playing lacrosse and football, and he is now an attacker on Pine Crest’s middle school lacrosse team, which just finished its season.
“At first it was very different, a whole different strategy,” Michael said about learning to play without the use of his hands. “I picked it up on my own, because there’s not many people who are amputees who play lacrosse to get advice (from). But slowly but surely, I learned how to do it.”
After Michael approached him about starting the Mikey’s Run charity, Harris posted a note about the idea to the MIT Facebook page.
A short time later, two other MIT students, Corey Walsh, of San Diego, and Karan Kashyap, of Dallas, offered to help set up the Mikey’s Run website.
They’ve also gotten help from the middle brother Justin, who has assisted in making and shipping T-shirts and organizing sponsors — “the behind-the-scenes work,” Harris said.
Initially, however, the boys could not raise money, because Mikey’s Run, itself, did not have 501(c)(3) non-profit status. So they reached out to Scott Rigsby, a motivational speaker and the first double amputee to complete the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, about becoming members of his non-profit organization.
“This was totally out of the blue,” said Scott Johnson, executive director of The Scott Rigsby Foundation. “Evidently, they had heard of Scott and his story, but we had not communicated with them at all prior to this. … They were out of breath and overly excited, and they were like, ‘Hey, we’re going to raise $1 million, and we’re looking for a foundation to team with.’”
All of the money raised through Mikey’s Run is now going to The Scott Rigsby Foundation’s Aid for Boston fund. Rigby and Johnson were both running in April’s Boston Marathon, and were a quarter-mile away from the finish line at the time of the blasts.
With Oprah’s donation, the fund has collected over $300,000, and is expected to grow in the coming months. “In our country and around the world, it’s kind of like — I think (Oprah’s) brand is bigger than the Good Housekeeping quality symbol,” Johnson said.
“When she stamps something and says, ‘I’m going to support this cause or this book,’ or whatever, that is such a validation that what you’re doing is of value, and it’s quality. And from a foundation standpoint, I think it validates for us that, where our mission is and what we’re trying to do to serve this population — we’re doing the right thing.”
In addition to raising money through traditional donations, Mikey’s Run is hosting a charity run on July 27 in Fort Lauderdale.
Johnson said he plans to reach out to Michael and Harris about helping drive The Scott Rigsby Foundation’s children with disabilities campaigns going forward, and Harris Stolzenberg is planning on raise further awareness by running in the 2014 Boston Marathon alongside Rigsby.
“I played lacrosse and football, and I got four varsity letters in high school in both sports, so I’m an athlete,” Harris said. “But I’m not a runner. so this is completely new to me.”
On the fundraising front, the boys still have a long way to go before they reach their $1 million goal, but even if they come up short, their efforts — and the generosity of donors like Winfrey — will make a huge difference in the lives of those impacted by the attacks.
“I felt an immediate connection to all the amputees,” said Michael, who said he is hoping to soon meet some of the bombing victims his organization is helping to assist. “I don’t want to say I felt bad for them, because I hate when people say that, but I felt like any help could (make a difference).”