Clair Ryan, a 31-year-old from Nashua, N.H., has connected people across the nation who contributed $10, $50 or, in some instances, several hundred dollars to Debra Harrell, a North Augusta single mother who works at McDonald’s.
An online fundraiser has raised nearly $40,000 for Harrell, who was arrested July 1 and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child. Police say she left her daughter, Regina, at North Augusta’s Summerfield Park.
Harrell, 47, was released on a $5,000 bond the day after her arrest, and the Department of Social Services returned Regina to her mother about 15 days later.
Harrell, who was home Friday with Regina, said the generosity of strangers who contributed to the fund has astonished her.
“I was so amazed. I thank each and every last one of them. I thank them so much. They just don’t know. The ordeal I went through was tragic,” she said.
Harrell said she had never spent a night apart from her daughter.
“Every night, I would cry. I would sleep in her bed because I was missing my baby so much,” she said.
Ryan, who is married but has no children, said Harrell’s arrest was a “cruel injustice” toward a single mother earning a minimum-wage and trying to provide for her child.
“By arresting her and taking her child away, society told her she couldn’t afford to work because she couldn’t afford day care,” Ryan said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Harrell’s arrest has gained attention of media outlets and bloggers across the nation. Many connected Harrell’s story to the national debate on the minimum wage.
McDonald’s denied last week that Harrell was fired, and the mother said she will return to her job Monday for the first time since she was arrested.
Ryan, who works for an environmental nonprofit organization, learned about Harrell’s arrest from a story in New York Magazine that her husband posted on Facebook. She felt compelled to help Harrell, and started the campaign on youcaring.com.
“Even though I’ve never been in a situation like that, and I probably never will be, I just thought it was wrong,” she said.
Ryan said she is more concerned with raising money for Harrell’s immediate financial needs than stirring the debate about living wages. The money raised will be placed in a financial trust managed by an attorney, she said.
Earlier this year, an online fundraiser raised $115,000 for a homeless mother in Arizona who left her children in a hot car while she interviewed for a job. Shanesha Taylor agreed last week to a plea deal in which prosecutors dismissed charges if she completes parenting and substance-abuse classes and creates child care trusts for her three children, according to various news outlets.
Harrell said her work schedule normally coincides with Regina’s school day. This summer, Harrell had brought her daughter to work, where she used a laptop until it was stolen. On the day of her arrest, she left her daughter at a nearby park with a cellphone. A woman noticed Regina without an adult and called police.
Harrell wouldn’t talk about her decision to leave her daughter at the park, saying her attorney instructed her not to speak to the media about the case.
A portion of money from the fundraiser will be used to replace the family’s stolen laptop and television, Harrell said. The remainder will go toward child care and education for Regina, who is an honor roll student, her mother said.
The fundraiser reached an initial $10,000 goal in 36 hours, Ryan said. Donations totaled $39,360 on Saturday.
“It’s a huge amount and is really going to make a change in her life and Debra’s daughter’s life,” Ryan said.