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Volunteers, companies help Marathon bombing victims

The offices of One Fund Boston in the Prudential Center run on items given by firms and the labor of volunteers.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The offices of One Fund Boston in the Prudential Center run on items given by firms and the labor of volunteers.

It began, just days after the Boston Marathon bombings, with a single folded table and some donated smartphones. Then came a safe, some unmatched tables and chairs, office supplies, even a single-cup coffee maker.

As donations to victims poured in from across the country, crews wired the office for phones and computers and made workstations for volunteers, while other firms in the building lent the use of their fax and copy machines.

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Amid deep fear and chaos, hard days when the city felt torn by loss, The One Fund Boston pushed forward, building an office from scratch in vacant space on the 14th floor of the Prudential Building. An office, like the fund itself, built entirely on generosity and goodwill.

As a shaken city did its best to find its way, volunteers quietly undertook the daunting work of managing the victim’s relief effort, which had received $47.4 million and 181 claims before Saturday’s deadline for applications.

“Every piece of paper, every pencil — it’s all donated,” said Paul Connolly, the fund’s chief administrative officer, noting that Boston Properties immediately offered the office space. “Not one penny of overhead. It’s really just a few volunteers running as fast as they can.”

Connolly, chief operating officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston before his retirement in 2010, oversees the Boston operation, which works closely with the Washington, D.C., office of Kenneth Feinberg, the fund administrator who will determine the compensation victims will receive.

The effort in Boston has received far less attention, but has played an important role in processing donations, handling the paperwork involved in accepting corporate donations, and reaching out to bombing victims as the deadline approached.

In the past two weeks, volunteers contacted hundreds of victims and their relatives who had registered through the fund’s website, asking if they needed help with their compensation claims. Some asked for assistance finding a lawyer or describing their injuries for the claim. A few needed their claims notarized, so a volunteer notary public arranged to meet them.

“I think the most important thing for the victims is that they have someone to call,” said Rebecca Frisch, a senior adviser to Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston, who is helping manage the fund. Menino, with Governor Deval Patrick, announced the creation of the fund the day after the April bombings, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

Volunteers have also combed news reports in search of other potential victims and asked hospitals if they could contact survivors about the claims deadline.

Even those who said they did not need help with their claims thanked organizers for the call, expressing a mix of relief and gratitude that after everything they had been through, someone was looking out for them.

“When you say you’re from the One Fund, you can hear people relax,” Connolly said. “They know you’re on their side. That’s heartwarming.”

Barbara Thorp, a social worker from Medfield who was among the first volunteers, called victims with the most serious injuries. Thorp had read some of the letters that accompanied donations, some of them poignant messages from young children, and shared some of them with victims.

“These letters are so heartfelt,” she said. “And people were so grateful. It was humbling to hear how touched they were. They saw it as a chance to express their gratitude to everyone.”

Thorp often described one letter, written by a grade-schooler in Hawaii. He had started a coconut stand to raise money and sent a check for more than $300.

“He sold a lot of coconuts!” she would say, getting a laugh every time.

Overall, the outpouring of support continues to amaze organizers and volunteers. To date, the fund has received some 47,000 checks, at least one from every state, totalling $28 million. The largest exceeded $1 million, and the smallest was just $1. The median is $50.

The fund so far has also received approximately $8 million in credit card donations, and $4.5 million in PayPal transactions.

“I don’t think anyone in the city thought the fund would go this high this quickly,” Connolly said.

Others call the fund with offers for victims who have lost limbs, such as wheelchairs or wheelchair-accessible vans. Some have offered to refit their homes.

In some cases, those without the means to donate money have offered items, from photographs to a designer jacket, that could be auctioned, requests that organizers must politely decline.

“People have been very generous and very understanding,” Frisch said.

In recent weeks, recent graduates and newlyweds have made donations for the fund in lieu of presents, while others have made contributions in memory of loved ones.

To process the donations in a secure, accurate fashion, organizers have created a legal and accounting infrastructure, all done on a volunteer basis. Bank of America set up a system to funnel donations into the fund’s account. A Braintree firm, eCratchit, handled accounting duties, with assistance from other specialists. A team of volunteers from PricewaterhouseCoopers has updated pledge lists and completed paperwork for corporations to match employee donations.

While individual gifts flow into the fund directly, volunteers must sometimes complete a variety of forms to process corporate donations.

Meanwhile, the donation total is updated multiple times a day on the website.

Feinberg’s office will begin reviewing claims next week, and plans to start distributing money at month’s end. Donations received before June 27 will all be distributed to victims and families.

After that, the fund will still remain active, although its precise mission has not been determined.

“There is no deadline,” to donate, Connolly said. “The needs will go on for years.”

Organizers and volunteers say the tragedy of the bombings, the urgent need to help the victims, has served as motivation to work long hours making sure donations are handled with the care they deserve. So, too, has the rush of generosity, as tens of thousands seek to combat the evil allegedly carried out by two men.

“There are so many more good people,” Frisch said.

Thorp said she wishes she could have read more of the condolences sent to the fund, which she describes as a tidal wave of “love and human kindness.” She hopes the memory of this outpouring of generosity outlasts the memory of the tragedy. “It represents far more than one fund,” she said. “In a sense, it represents the unity of our response.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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