By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Samantha York never met Mateo “Vinnie” Lorenzo, but his story tugged at her in a way that made her want to help pay for his funeral.
York, a social work student at Pittsburg State University, learned from her father, Tom Lohff, over lunch one day that the body of the young Pittsburg man had been pulled from a strip pit after a hiking accident, but the family couldn’t afford to bury him.
Lorenzo, 24, fell into the pit at Wilderness Park on Nov. 24 and drowned; search and rescue teams found his body on Nov. 26.
Lohff had worked with Lorenzo’s mother, Becky Jones, at the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services office in Pittsburg, and recalled that Jones had lost a daughter, Sara Smith, 32, last August.
“But there was a past due balance at the funeral home,” York said. “Because of that, they wouldn’t bury Vinnie without the money up front.”
Lorenzo, who was not working at the time of his death, had no life insurance or Social Security. York responded by mobilizing a team of fellow students in Social Work Plus, Phi Alpha and Campus Christians. Within a few days, she had put a plan into motion to raise enough to cover the cost of a casket and burial.
“I knew it would be hard to ask people to volunteer at this busy time of year, so I organized everything in advance, got packets and fliers ready, made hundreds of copies of things, and came up with specific tasks for people to sign up for and go do,” said York, who in addition to carrying 12 class hours is a mother of four.
Her team members established a memorial fund with the funeral home and organized a “Chili’s Give Back Night” on Tuesday at the Pittsburg restaurant. They left donation cans at local gas stations, used social media and went door-to-door at Pittsburg businesses in hopes of collecting anything anyone could afford to give.
“None of us ever met him or met his family, but I love that this group of people I’m with sacrificed time and effort to help someone they didn’t know,” said York, who grew up in McCune, a town of 405 people where “everyone knew everyone.”
“I’ve had random strangers email and ask if they could help.”
By Wednesday, the group had raised $1,800 — $300 from the Chili’s event, $500 from jars at gas stations, and $1,000 from businesses and individuals. Although an outside source came forward to front the money to cover the funeral expenses — which at a minimum will be $6,500 — York said the group isn’t quitting yet.
“Any of our donations will be going to reimburse this person,” York said. “We won’t be able to reimburse them the full amount, and they are OK with that. We just want to do everything we could.”
York said she doesn’t believe those who gave did so because it is the holiday season.
“When I was reaching out to different businesses for help, it really seemed like the time of year is not what made the decision for people,” she said. “I think it was because they were good-hearted and wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to help because it was the right thing to do.”
Jones, Lorenzo’s mother, said she had heard from many of her son’s friends that the fundraiser was under way.
“It just really touched my heart,” Jones said through tears. “Everybody has really come together to help at such a sad time in my life, and I just don’t have words to thank these people. I will never forget what they’ve done.”
Jones said she had another recent unexpected kindness, as well: An out-of-state family member came forward to pay the $2,000 still owed on her daughter’s funeral services.
“They weren’t aware of our troubles until they saw a post on Facebook,” Jones said. “They lost their daughter last Christmas, and they told me they would want someone to do that for their child.
“All of this has helped me get through this tough time. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
York, who after graduating next December plans to complete a master’s degree and pursue a career in clinical work in the corrections system, said she hopes to meet Lorenzo’s mother soon and tell her how important the project has been for those involved.
“I take away the fact that it doesn’t matter who you are or any of those kinds of things — that when something really matters, this community will be there for you if there are people to advocate for you,” York said. “No one knew this family very well, but they stood behind them.
“Thinking about this, it makes me very emotional. Everybody has a story, everybody deserves help, and everybody deserves kindness and consideration.”
SERVICES FOR MATEO “VINNIE” LORENZO will be held today at Timmons Chapel on the campus of Pittsburg State University, where he and his wife, Holly, were married in 2008. Burial will be in Highland Park Cemetery, where Lorenzo worked for a few years. His sister, Sara Smith, also is buried there. Arrangements are under the direction of Derfelt Funeral Home, Columbus.