From across the nation, people gave to Fallen Five's families

Samuel L. Jackson asks spectators to please donate during the Chattanooga Unite Tribute Concert at Ross's Landing on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Jackson, a Chattanooga native, emceed the benefit concert for families of victims of the July, 16, shootings at military facilities in Chattanooga.

Coming Saturday: Victims' families talk about life and moving forward one year after the July 16 attack.

It wasn't just about the money.

The $1.5 million or so that poured in for the families of Chattanooga's five slain service members since the July 16, 2015, shootings will certainly help. It might mean children don't have to worry about clothes, schoolbooks or college, or widows can afford to retrain for new careers.

That's important, but that's not all.

"In these times of uncertainty, it's a way for us to make some sense of it or feel that we have some power to respond," said Maeghan Jones, director of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

The Community Foundation is administering money raised for the Chattanooga Heroes Foundation, started by University of Tennessee football legend Peyton Manning and U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, which collected $1 million for the families. The foundation works with military liaisons to identify and meet the families' needs, Jones said.

Manning said he didn't expect such a response to the Chattanooga Heroes Fund.

"We had no idea when we started the fund that so many caring individuals would join together to raise so much for the families of these heroes," Manning said in a statement.

"Obviously the response was tremendous from the Chattanooga area, but really throughout all of Tennessee and other parts of the country. But predominantly, that money came in from the entire state from Nashville to Memphis to Knoxville; this says so much about folks of Tennessee and how they step up and care for causes that are near and dear to their heart," Manning said. " I am proud and honored to have been a part of this effort. On this one-year anniversary, we should continue to keep these families in our thoughts and prayers for continued healing."

Corker also praised the "truly remarkable" response last year from Chattanooga, the state and the nation.

"Through the goodwill and generosity of others, the Chattanooga Heroes Fund received an overwhelming amount of support, and while we will never be able to fill the void left by the loss of these incredible young men, we should remember their noble actions and continue to lend a helping hand to their families," Corker said in a statement.

The Community Foundation also administers the 7/16 Freedom Fund, which has raised about $250,000 to date and is still accepting donations to pay education expenses for the children and widows, Jones said.

The money came from near and far.

Jones cited a note from Fairhope, Ala., that came with a check:

"These funds were raised during a candlelight vigil in honor of the fallen troops. Our Eastern shore Community near Fairhope, Alabama, wants the families to know that we are praying for them and grieve their losses. They will not be forgotten."

Another came from a woman whose son had served in the Marines. She wrote: "My sympathy to all who were involved - you're in my prayers every day.

"There were hundreds of notes like this from people who sent not only financial support, but also messages of hope, healing and love," Jones said.

One fraternity at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has many members with military backgrounds or families in service.

"It just kind of hit home for us that this could easily be my family or someone that I'm close friends with," said James Witkowsky, who was president of the Zeta Epsilon chapter of Kappa Alpha in July 2015.

The fraternity brothers went to the online site Tilt with a $2,500 goal. After printing signs, going door-to-door to businesses and getting other UTC Greek groups involved, they ended up turning over almost $8,000 to the Community Foundation.

"It's eye-opening how Chattanoogans came together as a city: political, racial, everything just put aside and it's Chattanooga Strong," Witkowsky said. "I think that's one of the most special things about our city, how the city can come together and stand for their country and the people who are serving for them."

Fayetteville, Tenn., businessman Jeff Nieball raised nearly $2,500 selling his Chattanooga Strong T-shirt design and gave all the money to the Community Foundation for the families. He let other shirt-makers use the design for free if they agreed to do the same.

"Me personally, I grew up with not much," Nieball said. His parents became ill with cancer, the family lost their home and he dropped out of high school before losing both mother and father.

"I've just been in that situation where nobody helped out," he said. "Part of being a capitalist is I think it's important to give back to causes. I can't help everybody but we try to do what we can to help out and give back."

The riverfront tribute put together by Chattanooga Unite and featuring Hollywood megastar Samuel L. Jackson and a flyover by the Blue Angels pulled in $467,000 all told, said co-organizer and retired Navy Capt. Mickey McCamish. That includes some $100,000 in cash collected at the event, "just like Southern style, in churches: Pass the offering plate."

A group from Friends of the Festival, which puts on the annual Riverbend Festival, pulled the event together, McCamish said, with iHeartRadio lining up the talent. Key people donated time, resources and labor, he said.

"It was a way for Chattanoogans to really express their feelings, their caring, their compassion, their patriotism to the families of the five servicemen. Everyone just stepped forward to say, 'What can we do?'"

McCamish said that money has all been distributed to the families through the National Compassion Fund, operated by the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The year since the Chattanooga slayings has seen more mass attacks both at home, from San Bernadino, Calif., to Orlando, Fla., and abroad in Turkey, Bangladesh and Iraq.

Jones said many of those communities are seeing the same outpouring of money and support.

"It's important for the recipient, but also important for the giver," she said. "This is a way for them to say, 'This senseless and violent thing happened in our community and this is one way for me to respond. In the face of hatred and violence, I'll show love.'"

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.