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Netting celebs: Kids use e-mail to raise funds


December 8, 2001

Cedarburg - Undaunted by the anthrax scares that have celebrities bypassing fan mail, ambitious and tech-savvy students and parents here have taken their annual fund-raising appeal into cyberspace.

Fearing letters seeking donated items for St. Francis Borgia School's "An Auction from the Heart" would go unanswered by cautious stars and their PR handlers, the students and parents scanned copies of the solicitations and attached them to e-mail.

Kelley Prom, 13, said she "thought long and hard about someone who would reply."

She picked talk show host Rosie O'Donnell "because she's a little more like a practical ordinary person" than other celebrities and a well-known benefactor to a number of charities.

In a letter, Kelley said, "I told her how I watch her show as often as I could and about the auction and that I've seen how in the past she had been very generous."

The e-mail went out at 11 p.m. Tuesday.

By the next morning, O'Donnell's staff had replied, saying the talk show host would send a "koosh" ball (a spongy baseball-size ball), a T-shirt and a copy of her magazine, Rosie.

Said Kelley: "Awesome!"

The students' annual letter-writing campaign to celebrities - part of a fund-raising effort that generates tens of thousands of dollars for the school - hit a snag in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the anthrax postal scare that followed.

For one thing, many public relations firms, talent agencies and studios have hired professional fan mail services to screen letters. Some are not opening fan mail letters at all.

For another, the students' hand-printed letters looked too much like the anthrax-laced letters - which bore the fictitious "Greendale School" return address and block letters - sent to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, said Denise Prom, who is co-chairman of this year's auction and a distant relative of Kelley's.

Operators of many fan mail services, some of which handle up to 10,000 pieces of mail each week, have advised fans to send postcards instead of letters. Some are returning fan letters unopened.

"The kids had already written the letters by early October," right when the anthrax scare began, Denise Prom said.

Many of the letters were going to relatives or local businesses. But to break through to the celebrities - and maintain the personal touch of the children's letters - digital scans were made of the letters and they were attached to e-mail messages.

The biggest chore, Prom said, was finding e-mail addresses for celebrities. They're still searching for the addresses of about 25.

Some e-mail messages have been returned as undeliverable.

She said she was thrown for a loss when staffers at the Green Bay Packers told her players could not be contacted by e-mail.

The St. Francis students have received some replies - for example, from golfer Tiger Woods and Ray Szmanda, "the Menards guy" in the home center's TV ads.

They hope to hear from actor John Travolta, who has been a regular contributor to the auction the past few years.

Travolta usually sends two autographed pictures - one for the auction and one for the student writing the letter, Prom said.

And one eighth-grader hopes to receive an item from Fred Rogers, the now-retired longtime host of the PBS television program "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" whose theme song is: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

"I was just transfixed by your shows as I recognized all of the old characters that I loved so much as a young child. Prince Tuesday, King Friday and Mr. McFealy are just a few of the wonderful characters on your show," the student wrote.

"I decided to write to you (to ask for a donation) because I feel that you are such a great role model for children."

The student signed the letter, "Your neighbor."

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Dec. 9, 2001.

By DAN BENSON. Copyright © 2001, Journal Sentinel Inc.


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