When tornado ravaged Dexter, Matt LaFontaine turned auto dealership into community resource
Daniel Brenner I AnnArbor.com
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When LaFontaine got to the dealership, he was shocked.
The twister, later judged to be an EF-3 storm had come within a few hundred yards of the dealership, causing $500,000 worth of inventory damage. From there, it had veered into the nearby subdivision where many families with young children lived.
"The houses that got completely destroyed were probably 100 to 200 yards behind the store," LaFontaine said. "There were houses completely gone. ... It was devastating."
LaFontaine is the general manager of his uncle Mike's LaFontaine Automotive Group, with 10 locations in southeast Michigan. Although he doesn't live in Dexter, he said the community is very important to him because his three children live there. One graduated from Dexter Community Schools, and two still attend.
The tornado, which struck Dexter a year ago Friday, damaged or destroyed more than 400 homes, many of which were right behind the dealership at 7120 Dexter Ann Arbor Road.
LaFontaine wanted to help the displaced families, but wasn't sure how. So he called his father, Gordie, seeking advice. His dad suggested starting a relief fund.
"He was the one that inspired me," LaFontaine said.
"Dave Klump opened up the account for me that morning before the bank even opened," LaFontaine said. "He walked over a deposit slip and said, 'Here’s your account number.'"
LaFontaine invited all of the media outlets that he did business with to the dealership. His first radio spot promoting the fund was with Paul W. Smith of WJR 760 AM.
"I wasn’t off the air for five minutes, when this guy walked to the dealership, handed me a $20 bill and said, ‘Here you go,'" LaFontaine said.
Given the dealership's proximity to the most affected areas, LaFontaine had part of its parking lot cleared so that aid organizations could work from there, including the Dexter Area Fire Department and the Red Cross.
"It was definitely a staging area for lots of groups going in and out of the neighborhoods," said Faith In Action Director Nancy Paul.
"We had a huge outpouring of people," LaFontaine said. "We had semi-trucks pulling in with cases of water. We had people pull in with vans full of food. We had Busch's donate a bunch of food. Pretty soon, we were hauling van-loads of food and clothing and water."
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Dexter Community Schools offered space at Creekside Intermediate School to house the donated items and LaFontaine said officials from the school worked with community members to distribute those items to needy families.
As that same time that was happening, the fund was exceeding all expectations. Money was pouring in after LaFontaine and his employees had emailed requests for donations to their tens of thousands of customers, and Channel 4 constantly aired the URL to the fund's website so people could electronically donate.
"We had money come from as far away as California," he said. "As time went on, it was kind of like that six degrees of separation. You find out how many people know you or are connected to Dexter. When the donations started coming in from out of state, we realized we were part of a much bigger community."
LaFontaine found out just how big that community was when the Consulate-General of Japan in Detroit personally donated a $1,000 check to the relief fund, as a token of gratitude for when Cornerstone Elementary School raised funds for Japan following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country in 2011.
LaFontaine started a fund committee with Klump and Paul that featured local business leaders, government officials from the Village of Dexter and Dexter Township, and several people from local schools.
"Matt got us all together to do that," Klump said.
The committee members created a standardized form for aid requests and distributed funds accordingly. Most of the money went to deductible reimbursement for affected families.
"I think there were a lot of families at first who thought they didn’t want to take the money," LaFontaine said. "We had to encourage a lot of people to take advantage of the reimbursement of their deductibles and some of their expenses."
A year after the tornado, $339,000 has been donated to the fund. Of that, $302,000 has been distributed to roughly 240 families.
LaFontaine said he and the committee members plan to spend the fund's remaining balance on trees and on yard repair for qualifying families, some of whom have glass embedded in their lawns from when their windows blew out.
Faith in Action recognized LaFontaine as the 2013 Howard S. Holmes Humanitarian of the Year on Tuesday for his role in organizing relief for victims of the tornado.
"He's very community-oriented," Paul said. "His kids go to Dexter schools and he's involved on a lot of levels."
LaFontaine said helping the community was something he simply felt compelled to do.
"If something ever happened to me, I would want somebody to help me," LaFontaine said. "So it’s kind of that ‘do unto others as you would want done to yourself.'"
LaFontaine's dealership in Dexter will host a One Year Strong from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. to celebrate the community's ongoing efforts to rebound from the tornado.
"I definitely think it brought us together as a community," he said. "...It just gives you that recheck that we’re all human beings."