YOUNGSTOWN - The generosity of Western New Yorkers was on full display Saturday at the Johnson Family Benefit, a fundraiser for the Wilson family who lost their home and a daughter, Sarah, in an explosion in July.
"It's huge. It really is just a testimony to who the Johnsons are and what they mean to the community," said Sam Parise, an event organizer and a lifelong friend of the father, Jody Johnson.
The benefit ran from noon to 11 p.m. at Porter-on-the-Lake Park. Tickets cost $20, and all of the proceeds are going to the Johnson family. As of 4 p.m., more than 500 people had attended the event, where they enjoyed the music of local bands, food, children's activities and beautiful weather. All attendees had their pinky nails painted yellow at the check-in table in honor of Sarah.
Katie Johnson, 19, who just returned home from the hospital this week, sat around a table in the shade laughing and talking with her friends. She was treated extensively in the Erie County Medical Center burn unit after the explosion. She wore a white hat and a fingerless glove on her right hand. The Johnson family was not available for interviews.
Organizers couldn't have put on the event without the support of local businesses, which they said were incredibly generous and gave them whatever they needed to host the event. Donations included food, beer, bounce houses for children and even hundreds of bottles of soda from Coca-Cola, said Amanda Lentz, one of the organizers.
Lentz ordered 40 volunteer T-shirts, but she said there were probably twice that many volunteers. Donations to the raffle ranged in value anywhere from $250 to $2,400, and they included big items, such as an electric scooter and a diamond necklace, and smaller things such as gift baskets and movie tickets.
Senek Farms even donated four bushels of apples in a year when apples are short. Parise said he approached the farm about buying apples for the event, and the owner said his daughter had played soccer with Sarah and donated the apples for free.
The organizers held a small benefit at the Toby Keith concert earlier this summer to get seed money for planning the benefit. They raised $4,700 at that event alone, an amount that far exceeded expectations. A small part of that money was used to start planning Saturday's benefit.
Lentz did not know the Johnson family before the explosion, but she was touched by their story and wanted to help in any way she could.
"It's heartbreaking," she said. "I could not imagine what they're going through."
She first advertised the event on Facebook, where she listed her cellphone number for people to contact her if they wanted to help. Her phone was ringing "non-stop from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.," with people asking what they could do, she said.
Mike Culmo, a member of the band Hotel Bravo, which performed at the benefit, said the event was a demonstration of the generosity of Western New Yorkers and of their willingness to help out people in need.