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Crime

Orlando Charity Helps Children of Victims of Nightclub Mass Shooting: 'We Will Not Allow Their Futures to Become Another Casualty'

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When jewelry designer Stacey Papp learned that some of her closest friends from the fashion world were among those killed and injured in the horrific June 12 Orlando massacre, she immediately wanted to help their families.

Her longtime friend, Javier Jorge-Reyes, was murdered that night. Another longtime friend, Leonel Melendez, is in a coma fighting for his life. Says Papp, who owns the Orlando-based Bay Hill Jewelers: “I kept calling their best friend, saying, ‘What can I do?'”

As a jewelry designer and a philanthropist who started the Bridges of Light Foundation in 2004 to help at-risk children and foster kids, Papp became friends with the two men because they worked at Gucci, with whom she has longstanding ties. “We have a very tight community here,” she says.

The day after the shooting, Papp and other like-minded friends in the fashion and jewelry industry gathered together at the Orlando home of philanthropist Sam Azar of Azar Diamonds to start raising awareness that the victims’ families needed everything from help with funeral planning to food and water.

A dedicated group of industry professionals who knew some of the victims “ended up pulling together this sort of command station,” Papp says. (The group included Azar; Jorge Cruz of Longines Swiss, who worked with the victims for ten years at Gucci; Amy Figueroa of the Longines Watch Company; Jason Hoskinson of David Yurman; Ben Arroyo of Wells Fargo Bank; Beatrice Carmen Miranda of Metro City Realty and Edith Colon from Mainframe Real Estate.)

“Everybody had their Smart phones and computers and we sat around a table and just made a list of what needed to be done immediately for the victims and their families,” Papp says.

After they put the word out on social media, they were flooded with do-gooders who provided the victims’ families and close friends with items ranging from gift cards to food.

“Everyone was willing to donate blood,” she says. “Restaurants jumped on board and said, ‘What can we do?’ They each chose a night to feed a family involved in the tragedy. Other people were running around making deliveries.

“It was just the most unbelievably cohesive thing that happened so effortlessly and so quickly.”

Papp adds, “At the end of the day, we felt like we accomplished something.”

‘What Are We Doing for the Victims’ Children?’

Melendez is the father to a six-year-old girl, Bella. When the group began discussing who wanted to take Melendez’s six-year-old daughter out for a special day at Universal Studios or Walt Disney World while her dad remains in a coma, fighting for his life, “a light bulb clicked,” Papp says.

They started talking about other children who had lost parents in the attack, including children of Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35, who left behind his five-year-old son, Kelvyn, and Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49, a mother of 11, who died after getting shot, telling her 21-year-old son, who was with her that night, “Run, just go.”

Says Papp, “What struck me about all of this is: What are we doing for the children? These children are the ones who are going to be forgotten.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, she says that “everyone has been so generous and wants to help so badly, but I thought, there is maybe a missing component for follow-ups for the future.”

Since she had already founded a successful charity for children and youth, she decided to set up a fund to raise money for educational expenses and college tuition for the victims’ children: the Bridges of Light Foundation Education Fund.

“We already work with at-risk, homeless and foster youth in our community and have been doing that for years,” she says, explaining that the foundation pays for tutoring and focuses on one-on-one attention.

“When we give them a glimpse of what life could be like and show them what’s out there, they soar. Education is what we live at Bridges of Life, so this made so much sense,” she says.

Papp set up a team to manage the funds, with the president of Wells Fargo Bank, whom she knows, offering to open up bank accounts for the funds within hours: “Everyone has just been doing what they could to make it happen,” she says.

Papp’s goal, she says, is “to ensure the bright educational future of the children who were affected by this tragedy. We will not allow their futures to become another casualty in this time of suffering and grief.”

The fund is also working toward partnering with Florida Pre-Paid, which provides tuition at many local colleges.

“Our goal is to raise a full four years of college tuition for each child, through generous donations from our local, national and global community,” she says. Papp also wants to raise money to pay for room and board for each student.

“We know of 14 children in need so far, but are hoping that other families will reach out to us,” she says.

Like other victims’ families, Melendez’s relatives are grateful for what Papp and her friends have done for the future of the victims’ children.

“When she told us about the scholarship, I got the chills because I thought it was so amazing,” says Melendez’s brother-in-law, Rudy Garay, who has been helping to care for Bella, while her father is in the hospital.

“Her foundation is really going to benefit all the kids directly. It will be one less thing for the parents or whoever is taking care of the kids.”

Papp is happy to help – “I am super-passionate about helping children,” she says – and she encourages others to help if they can.

“We hope that everyone, including corporations who haven’t yet decided where to donate for the victims and might want to partner with Bridges of Light, can give whatever is comfortable and put it towards this unbelievable fund to make a difference for the future of these children. It would mean so much,” she says.

She adds: “I just know that when you do good things, good things happen.”

To donate, please visit the Bridges of Light Foundation Education Fund.