Growing up in Kutztown, Christopher Hayes saw guns as just another part of rural life. The damage they were capable of inflicting when wielded by the wrong hands, he said, was a distant possibility he only encountered when watching the evening news.
But when Hayes moved to Philadelphia to attend Temple University, his experiences with firearms radically changed. He was a sophomore when, on break between classes, he saw a drive-by shooting as he tried to watch a movie. And in 2005, his friend and classmate Brian Yeshion, then 21, was gunned down during a robbery inside his off-campus apartment.
"It's different being in the city rather than the country, where everybody uses a gun for hunting and protection," Hayes said.
It was the Sandy Hook school shooting that finally moved Hayes to found the Philadelphia-based Gun Violence Survivors Foundation, which gained its nonprofit status in August and officially launches this week. Hayes read news reports about a charity that amassed millions of dollars in donations for victims and their families. But there was a dispute over the decision to withhold a sizable percentage of the funds for unspecified support to the Newtown community. And six months after the tragedy, the intended recipients still hadn't been paid.
"That's a waste of millions of dollars. I never realized how much work they did in a few months for them to just withhold that money," Hayes said. "I thought there should be something done for survivors of gun violence, instead of just giving them money and walking away or keeping a large portion of money that was donated for survivors."
In a bid for to bring more transparency to the charitable model, Hayes came up with a clever system.
"I want to essentially create a survivor registry, much like a wedding registry, through which donors can buy certain items survivors need," he said. "I'm looking at covering an array of basically anything, from mental health care to, if they have a newborn, diapers. And, as a donor, you see where your money goes. You can help with funeral benefits or donate toward a specific item, and know your funds went to that item."
Unfortunately, Hayes didn't even get a chance to set up such a registry before holding his first benefit drive. Two months ago, as he was planning the Gun Violence Survivors Foundation launch event, originally slated to be held at the Public House, Hayes' life intersected with yet another firearms-related tragedy.
The restaurant's barback, 21-year-old Jose Gabino Aparicio, was killed in the early morning hours of Sept. 26 near Eighth and Watkins streets. The assailant allegedly demanded his backpack, then shot him three times in the stomach following a struggle.
Friends said Aparicio was returning from his Public House shift and on his way to his brother-in-law's bakery to pick up breakfast for his family. There was nothing inside the backpack but his work clothes and cell phone.
"It just comes down to you never know what will happen and when it will happen," Hayes said. "It was purely coincidental that happened to someone in the organization I was going to throw my party at. It came as a shock."
So the launch party was transformed into a benefit for Aparicio's wife, newborn and two children. Family members said it will cost $7,000 just to cover the cost of flying Aparicio's body back to Mexico.
"It's good to help someone out who worked so hard to provide for his family, both here and back home in Mexico," Hayes said.
If the haul for the Gun Violence Survivors Foundation launch event is any indication of supporters' largess, the nonprofit will be off to a strong start. The first 200 people who to came out to The Field House today received a free Heady Topper IPA from The Alchemist brewery in Vermont. Organizers also gave away an iPad mini, restaurant gift certificates and a Philadelphia Union jersey autographed by Kris Boyd.
"We probably posted 50 items we're raffling off during and after the football game," Hayes said earlier this week. "Everything was 100 percent donated from people and businesses in the area."