By Mike McCombs
The world is a strange place right now. It’s a weird time to be alive.
Life during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is simply something most people never envisioned.
Isolated for the most part from friends and family, social distancing, not being able to spend time around other people can be difficult. And it’s easy to feel down, especially with the depressing stories that are all around.
But the good stories are there, too. And locally, there are some good things are happening.
One obvious example, already I’ve written about in The Island News, is Cathryn Miller’s effort to raise money for out-of-work food and beverage workers through Facebook auctions.
She’s been doing her thing for just more than five weeks now and has raised close to $25,000.
A couple hundred dollars at a time, she, and the people who have joined her effort, have made some people’s lives better, even if only slightly, and let them know their neighbors care about them.
But on Monday, April 20, that nearly all came crashing down on what turned out to be a bizarre day.
“I was out delivering auction items and went to the post office to mail some gift cards that had been won,” Miller said. “While I was there, the postal worker told me I had a certified letter, so I signed for it, got back in my vehicle drove to the next drop off location. While I was waiting for the auction winner to come pick up their items I opened the letter.
“That’s when I read it.”
The letter was from the Office of the Honorable Mark Hammond, Secretary of State for the state of South Carolina. In the letter, Hammond’s general counsel Shannon Wiley informed Miller that she was operating an illegal raffle and was being fined $500.
It wasn’t particularly Miller’s auctions that had run afoul of Hammond’s office, but she actually had held several raffles in lieu of auctions, selling numbers 1-45 for drawings for the auction prize with the money going directly to the out-of-work food and beverage worker who was to benefit.
Whether Miller or any of the participants knew it or not, this was a no-no.
To fight it meant paying $150 and facing a seriously uphill battle. And meanwhile, suddenly, with numerous silent auctions in progress, her entire charitable operation was halted.
Not to mention, this was a citation that could remain on Miller’s record, affecting her ability to get certain jobs.
It’s fair to say Miller was devastated.
“Once I read the letter, I was shattered and very very upset and I just didn’t think I had the energy to fight it,” Miller said. “I’m tired.”
At 11:30 a.m., she shared the letter with her followers, turned her phone off and disappeared from the world for a couple hours.
And that’s when the magic happened.
Miller’s Facebook group, now more than 3,200 strong was angry, motivated and determined.
Group member Lisa Fisher contacted attorney Luke Paulick, who offered to help Miller for free.
Frank Lesesne, who owns the Anchorage 1770 Inn, reached out to State Representative Shannon Erickson, who in turn reached out to Miller.
And numerous members of the group, determined to encourage and help Miller fight the fine and citation, began to send her money via the same online cash apps they had been using to help unemployed servers and bartenders.
Many others attempted to contact Miller, asking what they could do to help and if she knew what she was going to do.
“All this happened in the couple hours I had my phone turned off,” said Miller, who returned to the group, now considering fighting the citation.
Meanwhile, group member Donnie Polk passed the news along to TV stations. But more importantly, he told his friend Victor Webster about Miller’s plight. Webster joined the Facebook group at about 4 p.m.
Owner of Charleston’s Sweetgrass Vodka, Webster initially told Miller to fight the citation and fine and that he’d help. But then he said not to do anything, yet. He might be able to take care of this.
Webster had a wild-card. He knew S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. And he put in a call.
And at 6:19 p.m., after a really rough seven hours for Miller, Webster posted this:
“Great news!! Alan Wilson (SC Attorney General) just called me. He talked to Mark Hammond (SC Secretary of State) and Mark is going to waive the fee. Cathryn, send me your phone number. Hammond wants to contact you. Alan told me to tell you that he thanks you so much for helping our citizens in need!!!”
Miller was shocked.
“I just want to say that my friend Victor Webster is a true hero for helping out Cathryn Miller in her time of need,” Polk posted.
Shannon Wiley, from Hammond’s office, reached out to Miller, clarifying that as long as the money went straight to the person in need with no middle man, Miller’s Facebook group wouldn’t have to even register as a charity. She sent her an email the next morning, confirming as much.
“Obviously, I learned a very valuable lesson on some South Carolina laws,” Miller said, “but the biggest takeaway from that day would have to be the community support and how people I have never even met rallied around to help and basically performed a miracle. Little did I know when I started this group that I would be the one ending up needing help.
“That was something I have never experienced before. … I never asked for help. In the couple of hours I turned my phone off, they all got together and the outcome was just incredible.”
The experience has only increased Miller’s love for her adopted town.
“My husband and I had always planned to retire back in Australia,” she said, “but the more we spend time in this community, the more we are not going anywhere.”
Mike McCombs is the editor-in-chief of The Island News.
In the interest of full disclosure, McCombs is also a member of the Facebook page Lowcountry “Giving” For Out-of-Work Hospitality and Entertainment Staff.