The special needs blogging community was rocked earlier this month by what many see as – at best – a violation of trust and – at worst – a premeditated scam meant to play on the heartstrings of supportive peers and the hopes of special needs parents.
The story begins with a blog called Marissa’s Bunny – written as the personal narrative of a father, Mike, and his daughter Marissa, who was diagnosed with Infantile Spasms, a rare pediatric form of epilepsy. For three years Mike has shared news of Marissa’s daily struggles, meetings with doctors, the high cost of treatment, theories and possible surgeries, and even a disturbing video of Marissa in the midst of a seizure.
With his heartfelt writing and raw portrayal of the life of a father with a special needs child, Mike built a strong fan base for Marissa’s Bunny. The blog was featured on various sites and by media outlets, in part because of Fairfax, the stuffed bunnies Mike originally sent out to family and friends to help raise awareness for Infantile Spasms. Eventually Mike began sending bunnies to readers in return for donations, which people gladly gave, many sending in pictures of their Fairfax bunnies at locations around the world.
Over time, Mike began making more frequent appeals to his readers for donations, whether in exchange for a bunny or not. It seems doctors had recommended a surgery to help alleviate Marissa’s condition, at an overwhelming cost of $30,000. Mike’s posts became increasingly disheartened about the cost of Marissa’s care, and after what he says was the encouragement of a reader, Mike formalized the donation process in September 2010 by placing a ChipIn widget on the front page of his blog.
In addition to blogging about Marissa and Infantile Spasms, Mike also offered regular giveaways to his readers. Most were tech-related gadgets or games, reflecting Mike’s own expressed gaming interests and employment at a “large, mid-Atlantic internet company.” But in October 2010, he ran his biggest giveaway yet – one for a brand new iPad, reportedly donated by his unnamed employer. And better yet? His employer would match any donations made during the time of the giveaway (although Mike indicated that donating would not increase one’s chance to win).
After drawing a winner for the first iPad, Mike announced that his employer had donated two more for giveaway. It was again mentioned that an entry accompanied by a donation would be appreciated – and would be matched by his employer – but was not mandatory.
After that giveaway ended, Mike’s employer made a surprise announcement on the Marissa’s Bunny blog – he would be matching fundraising efforts in a big way, even going so far as to help establish Marissa’s Bunny Foundation, and offered a number of other big prizes for giveaway.
The next several posts chronicle Mike’s back-and-forth anticipation of whether or not enough donations would be collected to reach the matching threshold established by his employer. At one moment, things looked bleak, the next moment, his employer extended the deadline. AND, added five $500 Visa gift cards to the giveaway extravaganza.
On December 27, 2010, Mike reported:
Oh, did I mention we hit the $10k donation drive tablet supply threshold on Christmas day? With the help of an nth hour Fairfax purchase, and donations from my co-workers (not reflected in the chipin widget), we went over by $21 dollars just before the deadline! So, dear reader, watch this space for a special Marissa’s Bunny iPad giveaway plus the foundation will start with 30 tablets of assorted makes and models above and beyond the funding. Obviously, I couldn’t have done it without you guys. The foundation is always in need of more funds, the overmatching is continuing through New Years Eve, and Marissa is still giving out codes for things, so if you’ve got a few extra dollars in your pocket left over from Santa, let’s trade! [emphasis added]
The post, as with several beforehand, was accompanied by the ChipIn donation widget, which read:
Just a week after reporting the fundraising goals had been met, however, Mike posted a new fundraising challenge for the newly-formed “Foundation,” with more indications that funds would be matched by his employer.
Meanwhile, updates from Mike about Marissa’s $30,000 surgery read like a roller-coaster. Surgery dates scheduled, then rescinded, doctors in disagreement, and finally the revelation that it wouldn’t cost $30,000, but $70,000. Mike returned to his loyal readers with a plea for more donations, with the assurance that his employer would continue to match funds.
And, as if Marissa’s own surgery concerns and costs weren’t overwhelming enough, in February 2011, Mike and his employer indicated that they would begin fundraising for a second child’s surgery – a boy named Joseph, also diagnosed with Infantile Spasms and requiring the same surgery as Marissa. [A third fundraising motive was added to the mix after Mike started asking for donations to send to displaced children following the tsunami in Japan.]
On February 23, 2001, Mike surprised his readers by offering 5 iPads in a “merit-based” giveaway, asking entrants to apply for the iPads by sharing their personal stories and needs for this type of technology. Apparently, due to the continued success of fundraising efforts, the 5 iPads were increased to 20, and Mike told readers that he, his wife and some friends would choose 40 finalists from the 350+ applications to submit to his bosses, who would chose the 20 winners.
Before the merit-based winners could be announced, though, Mike started not a giveaway, but a raffle this time, of an iPad and several other high-priced items which he said had been donated to him, which readers could enter to win by purchasing a $2 ticket. Mike assured readers:
Directly donated funds from this will be split 50/50 and deposited into long-term special needs care funds that have been established for both Marissa and Joseph.
On May 11, Mike announced that his bosses couldn’t choose just 20 winners from the 40 finalists in the merit-based iPad giveaway, and instead ALL 40 would be receiving a unit.
A mother of a child with special needs, and one of the announced winners of the merit-based iPad, wrote on her blog, A Day At a Time:
I received the email letting us know Ayden was chosen as a winner on Mother’s Day evening. I was crying as I read the email, because this was a huge blessing to us. Ayden won something because of who he was, and to have someone else recognize how special he was, it meant something.
But things quickly began to unravel. Mike’s post on June 2 is the first indication on Marissa’s Bunny that something might be amiss with his ability to award the 40 merit-based iPads. He wrote of complicated Apple policies regarding iPad giveaways, and the increasing involvement of lawyers in the affair. Despite this, on June 13 Mike began a second round of iPad giveaways, this time with a $5 donation required for entry. This endeavor was quickly shut down, however, because of what Mike called “legal trouble.” At the time, he indicated that he would be refunding everyone’s $5.
A handful of posts on Marissa’s Bunny between late June and early July show Mike becoming increasingly concerned over what he says were legal woes and even a threat to himself and his family. A cryptic message on the blog had readers confused and winners of the iPads unsure of what would happen next.
Ellen Seidman, author of Love That Max, a blog about “raising kids with special needs who kick butt,” caught wind of the situation and wrote a post on July 9 called “The Case of the Missing iPads – and Unrest in the Special Needs Community.” Ellen’s intent was to bring the situation to light and hope for some answers, but what transpired across more than 200 comments to the post was a whirlwind of excuses, outrage, and, ultimately, the truth (or some version of it).
Under an immense amount of pressure from commenters demanding more information about the Marissa’s Bunny iPads, Mike finally admitted that the iPads would not be awarded. He is quoted as saying:
There are no longer any iPads. I’ve never had access to the matching funds I’ve been promised. Something along the way changed and I’m getting hung out to dry by my bosses. … We’re not going to fundraise any more. There won’t be any more giveaways on Marissasbunny for special needs or otherwise. I’m still going to update with Marissa’s surgical preps and that kind of thing, but that’s all.
Several bloggers in the comment section embarked on extensive amateur detective work and have now accused Mike of everything from lying about the iPads to making up the entire story behind the Marissa’s Bunny site. It’s been suggested that Mike has operated under different aliases online, scamming people out of tens of thousands of dollars. More than one person involved has said they have either contacted authorities or are looking into their legal options for bringing Mike to justice. As of now, no one can say how funds collected from Marissa’s Bunny have been used, and there has been no mention of a surgery ever being performed.
Blogger Seidman, upon whose post the bulk of this story “broke,” had this to say to ShePosts about the situation:
The entire situation has been disturbing, unnerving and rather suck-y. There are dozens of kids with special needs who didn’t get iPads they were promised, ones they need for communication. I expected readers to comment on how disappointed and ticked off they were; I was surprised at the level of detective work some took it upon themselves to do. Do-goodism gone wrong brings out the Sherlock in people. Still, so many facts remain unknown.
This incident has sent tremors through the special needs community but it’s not going to crack its foundation, one built on caring, support and goodwill. People pitch in money to help others, and will continue to do so; we’ll just be a little more cautious now. People give away iPads to enable kids with disabilities, and will continue to do so. I sure hope that what went down raises awareness about the need for iPads for kids with disabilities. Wouldn’t it be awesome if Apple offered a discount? HINT HINT.
As Mike said he would, he has indeed left the Marissa’s Bunny site intact. Perhaps in response to many people’s suspicion of why – in over three years of blogging – he has never posted a picture of himself or his wife (which some readers have taken as circumstantial evidence that Mike is, in fact, not Marissa’s father), yesterday’s post included what Mike says is a picture of him with Marissa in 2008. Completely absent, however, was any real mention of the iPad situation, an explanation or an apology.