ELKHART - Rob Bartels sat and wept as the bids were called out at the Have a Heart gala.
When he took the stage, he struggled to find words.
"I am astonished. I am humbled, overwhelmed," he told the crowd of nearly 400 people gathered at The Lerner Friday, Feb. 14, to raise money for the Elkhart General Hospital Foundation. "Thank you for your generosity."
What the president and chief executive officer of Martin's Super Markets didn't expect was for the city with a heart to be so generous to Martin's Super Markets. The event raised an estimated $700,000, mostly for the hospital foundation. But as part of it, people gave generously toward the Martin's Foundation too. During a "paddle raise," bidders donated more than $250,000 with half of the money going to the hospital foundation and half to the Martin's Foundation.
On Jan. 15, a man killed two women and before being shot and killed by Elkhart police. Tim Portolese, co-chairman of the fundraising committee, said they came up with the idea to mark the one-month anniversary of the tragedy by giving back.
So during the auction of the giant painted hearts, Portolese called Bartels forward and gave a heart the foundation commissioned for Martin's. Artist Carrie Beachey painted the heart with an elk, strands woven together and the words, "love. hope. unity."
"This shows what a community is," Portolese said.
Bartels said thank you for the grace, love and character the Elkhart community has shown following the tragedy. "From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you. The Martin's family is on both sides of the register and boy we appreciate you. Thank you," he said.
Then auctioneer Neil Saffer asked for donations. Pete Liegl, founder of Forest River, gave $200,000 and dozens of others gave amounts ranging from $100 to $10,000.
Saffer said Elkhart is a special place where so many people are generous. He said that he's not seen that level of participation on that type of fundraising before.
"I was beyond amazed," Portolese said Saturday. He's helped organize a number of charity fundraising events, but said this appeal to help the Martin's Foundation tops many other auctions.
The hospital foundation is also giving $10,000 to the Martin's Foundation. "We are very comfortable writing the check to them and letting them dole it out as they see fit in proper chunks," Portolese said. The Martin's Foundation will give some to the Elkhart Police Department and support the families and employees who need mental health services after the tragedy.
He said organizers are working on a way for others who weren't at the event to contribute to the Martin's Foundation. He also said a community unveiling of the Martin's heart will happen after some of the snow is gone.