J.J. Watt Appealed for Donations. Then His Mom Got to Work.


For Connie Watt, who is vice president of her son’s Justin J. Watt Foundation, and her helpers, that has meant day after day of counting the money pouring in. On top of that, Ms. Watt has turned Pewaukee High School, the alma mater of J. J. and his two brothers, into a giant pantry for relief supplies. The drive got so big that she had to organize a second pickup location in Janesville, Wis., about 30 miles away.

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Connie Watt, a former vice president for finance at a home inspection company, coordinated collection efforts and counted — and recounted — tens of thousands of dollars in donations at her kitchen table.

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Fox 6 Milwaukee

Now she has to develop a game plan to redistribute all of this generosity to people suffering more than 1,000 miles away.

“I had no idea, obviously, what it was going to turn into,” Ms. Watt said in a phone interview. “We knew that it would be well received and he has a great following, but not to this level. We had no idea.”

Her former career in finance and banking gave Ms. Watt some of the tools she needs to direct the huge fund-raiser she is suddenly responsible for overseeing. More than 160,000 donors have entrusted her and her son with managing their contributions and delivering them to victims in Texas. She also arranged drives collecting food and supplies at four locations in Wisconsin, photos of which surfaced on J. J. Watt’s Twitter account on Sunday morning.

“Everybody knows people need water,” Ms. Watt said. “It’s about how can it really be best put to use. There were a lot of legal things we had to do as well with that much cash. It was a little scary. It was different. I account for every penny no matter what.”

The idea of sending trucks full of supplies came before Watt decided to post his first video last Sunday announcing that he was trying to raise $200,000 in hurricane relief funds. The night before that video was posted, Ms. Watt received an email from the Wisconsin-based manufacturer Hufcor saying the company wanted to send three trucks to Houston, but wanted to work with the Watt Foundation to get the word out around Pewaukee, population 14,300, to ensure that the vehicles would be filled.

Initially, Ms. Watt asked Marty Van Hulle, the Pewaukee High School principal, if she could park a semi trailer outside the school starting Tuesday, Aug. 29. She planned another drop-off location in the dusty parking lot of Blain’s Farm & Fleet in Janesville.

By Wednesday morning, it had become apparent that two trucks would not be enough. By midafternoon, the Pewaukee High School cafeteria’s folding tables had stacks of canned tuna that rose taller than the 5-foot-10 school superintendent, Mike Cady. Nearby were similar towers of packaged snacks, disposable plates, laundry detergent and applesauce.

Children showed up with their parents to volunteer. One resident brought 20 handmade blankets, and a woman in a wheelchair volunteered to check the condition of the food that was being sent for expiration dates and open containers because she could not help carry it.

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J.J. Watt’s foundation set up collection points at multiple locations in Wisconsin last week, gathering food and relief supplies for people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, where Watt plays for the Texans.

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Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Ms. Watt had a hand in every step of the process. She formed an assembly line, starting with volunteers at the tissue-box station outside the choir classroom and ending with players from the Pewaukee football team — who had signed up to work in shifts — carrying the filled boxes to the trucks.

She also stood in the brick-walled hallways and stuffed boxes herself between interviews with reporters from local television stations, and made appeals on social media when the volunteers ran out of items. Within minutes, new volunteers would arrive with the goods to fill her requests.

She enlisted three people to go through an avalanche of emails and identify those who were offering trucks, because the school was running out of space.

“Connie and John were here the entire time,” Van Hulle said of Watt and her husband. “They were here at 7:30 in the morning until after six o’clock when we got things cleaned up. So they were completely invested in this process. They didn’t just turn it over. They were hauling boxes and doing all kinds of grunt work like the rest of us were.”

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Connie Watt with J.J. Watt at his foundation’s charity softball game in May. The game is the organization’s chief fund-raising event every year, but it brings in only a fraction of what the Harvey appeal produced. That sudden influx of millions created bookkeeping challenges.

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Bob Levey/Getty Images

Ms. Watt said she slept only four to five hours a night at the height of the fund-raiser. She would stay at the high school until 8:30 p.m. and then trudge home on the path between her house and the school — a distance she says she can cover in less than the time of a television commercial break — to answer emails and check the youcaring.com total.

In all, the campaign sent 12 trucks of supplies and one cargo plane full of diapers and baby formula to Houston; on Sunday, J. J. Watt and several of his Texans teammates helped unload the supplies in Houston.

But the most challenging part for Ms. Watt, who describes herself as “organized to a fault,” has been deciding how to handle the money. The J. J. Watt Foundation’s largest event every year is a softball tournament in Houston that usually raises about $1.3 million, a fraction of what has been collected for Harvey relief.

“We had to get the paperwork in place to be able to include the money in the foundation,” Ms. Watt said. “We needed the legal team, the board members. It takes a little time. We had to set up a new bank account because it’s all the same company, but we don’t want a single penny going into the other accounts.”

The foundation board, which includes her All-Pro son, planned to hold a conference call on Monday to discuss specific recipients for the money. Ms. Watt said she hoped to begin distributing money as soon as Monday night.

But that does not mean the offers of help have stopped coming. Hours after the first trucks started their 17-hour drive to Texas on Friday night, and Ms. Watt left Pewaukee High for the short walk home, a man showed up at the school and asked, “Is this still where we can drop off donations?”

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