Pennsylvania City Receives $100 Million Donation From 'Anonymous Friend'

Mike Batchelor invited the heads of 46 charities into his downtown office for one-on-one meetings to personally deliver the news.

Nearby, on a small table, sat a box of tissues.

And then he proceeded: A donor had given a staggering $100 million to the Erie Community Foundation, and the charities would get to share the windfall.

That's when the tears came — and the mystery began — in this old industrial city of 102,000 on Lake Erie. The donor would be identified only as "Anonymous Friend."

Batchelor and other foundation officials are sworn to secrecy, allowing only that the donor had worked with the organization for years to identify deserving recipients before the announcement late this summer.

Is the donor now dead or still alive? No comment, Batchelor said. What is the donor's connection to Erie? No comment.

But talk here about the gift has taken an interesting turn in recent weeks: As much as everyone here would like to know their benefactor's identity, many are also reluctant to pry, content to leave well enough alone.

At the Achievement Center in downtown Erie, which provides physical therapy and other services to children, executive director Rebecca Brumagin puts a stop to discussions about who Anonymous Friend might be.

"My feeling is that we're not honoring the donor if we spend time speculating about it," Brumagin said.

Her nonprofit, which serves 3,200 children a year in a five-county area, will get $2 million.

"The needs are really great. So we will be able to help more children because of this," Brumagin said.

Kitty Cancilla cried when she learned Community Shelter Services Inc., where she is executive director, will get $2 million. The nonprofit's previous largest donation was $25,000.

Even now, Cancilla clutches a balled up white tissue and fights back tears as she talks about the gift.

With no money for marketing, the shelter operator gets donations and funding however it can; over the years, they have scrimped to get by with food donations and cutting back staff on overnight shifts.

Cancilla said she is unable to even speculate who the donor could be. "We don't really travel in a community that knows the wealth of people," she said. And she prefers not to even try.

"It's disrespectful to the friend," she said. "To me, that's a spiritual thing."

"The fact that a gift was given without any wish for glory for the friend has got to be a response to Jesus teaching about loving our neighbors," she said.

Each nonprofit will get about $1 million to $2 million. Other money will go to the Erie Community Foundation, where Batchelor is president, and the United Way of Erie County.

The donor put no restrictions on the use of the money but encouraged the charities to use the funds to create endowments through Erie Community Foundation. Nearly 500 charitable endowments operate under the administration of the foundation.

Most recipients are human services agencies, including a food bank, a women's center and blindness resource group. Three local universities also will get money.

And the entire county of 280,000 will benefit, Batchelor said.

"I really believe that it's really too big for Erie to even get their arms around. I don't think people understand the magnitude of this," he said. "In almost every case, it's the largest gift they've ever received."

At an old public school building turned homeless shelter, Cancilla proudly shows off what they have done with so little. There are separate rooms for men, women and families, a dining room and kitchen stocked with canned food and a room for teens to do their homework or hang out. The upstairs floors are single rooms, where men and women can live at low cost or with government assistance; the men's restrooms have been remodeled, though they are still awaiting money to do the women's.

The residence hall is where Ethel McMillan, 56, and Chester James, 48, met about a year ago and fell in love. On a recent afternoon they sit in a common room finishing their lunch. Neither had heard about the large donation that will keep them in their homes; their days are filled with other concerns.

"This is the best shelter. For one, it helps me stay clean," James said.

"You can get a good meal. It's safe here. Other shelters don't have all the security," McMillan said.

Over at the Achievement Center, little blond Abigail VanHorn, 5, who suffers from a form of autism, spends time in a playroom designed for fun and therapy, riding on a contraption that looks like two scooters stuck together.

Her mother, Pam VanHorn, looks on and smiles, and marvels at the Anonymous Friend's generosity.

"What a godsend for some of these agencies because I know a lot of them struggle," she said.

The only fear, said the homeless shelter's Cancilla and others, is that other people will see the large donation and decide their small contributions aren't needed.

Batchelor said that's not what Anonymous Friend intended.

"I know that the donor hopes this will inspire others to give within their means," he said.