Charity set up after RI fire has had modest effect

Wednesday - 2/6/2013, 12:38pm EST

MICHELLE R. SMITH
Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) -- Months after they were sentenced for a 2003 fire at their Rhode Island nightclub that killed 100 people, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian set up a charity to help educate the dozens of children who lost one or both parents in the blaze.

They held fundraisers for the Station Education Fund and persuaded several colleges to promise scholarships. Today, more than five years after it was established, the fund boasts on its website that it has secured $12.8 million in pledged scholarships and programs for 76 children.

As the 10th anniversary of the tragedy approaches on Feb. 20, an Associated Press review of the charity's accomplishments finds the reality is more modest.

The maximum potential value of the scholarships is closer to $4.5 million, according to a college president who helped line up the pledges, and that assumes the unlikely scenario that all 76 children will go on to four years of college.

Also, only three students have attended college with tuition help from the program since it started in 2007, with scholarships so far valued at just under $70,000. And one of those students withdrew after less than a semester, saying she couldn't afford to continue.

A separate program run by the charity, paid for by fundraisers organized by the Derderians, has given out nearly $18,000 to the children for miscellaneous items such as textbooks, school clothes and computers, according to figures provided by the fund and papers filed with the state.

The Derderians declined requests for interviews and referred questions to Jody King, a friend who founded the fund with them and whose brother was killed in the fire. King says that he considers the charity a success and that they've tried their hardest.

"We helped one child, we did our job," King says. "I think we've done a really good job."

Among the possible reasons given for the small number of children who have received scholarships: Many of the children -- perhaps dozens -- are not yet college age. (Four were not even born when the fire happened and are now 9 years old.) Some children never even graduated from high school and chose not to go to college. And many families bitterly swore they'd never take a dime from the Derderian brothers.

But many families contacted by the AP said they had never heard of the fund and wished they had known about it so they could have taken advantage of it. Others complained it can be hard to contact. People who tried in recent months found the phone number disconnected and said emails went unanswered.

The brothers were owners of The Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., when pyrotechnics set off by the heavy metal band Great White ignited flammable foam installed inside the club as soundproofing. The Derderians pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in 2006. Jeffrey was sentenced to community service, and Michael served less than three years of a four-year prison term.

While Michael was still behind bars in 2007, Jeffrey Derderian and King, along with their wives, announced they were starting the Station Education Fund. King said at the time that the fund was primarily geared toward children from kindergarten through 12th grade, with the money covering expenses such as tutoring, proms and athletic equipment.

Some of the victims' families praised the brothers. Others were skeptical they would be able to raise enough money to make a difference to children growing up without their parents. Some accused the Derderians of using the charity to try to make themselves look good. The first fundraiser was held a few months before Michael Derderian went before the parole board for the first time in 2008.

The group later secured college scholarships, paid for and administered by the schools, after Jeffrey Derderian and King turned to Johnson & Wales University President John Bowen for help. Bowen says he was moved by something Jeffrey told him.

"I still remember it. He said, 'Unfortunately, this is going to go ahead and define me, but what I wanted to do, I want to turn this tragedy into something positive, and I want to focus on the children. And that's how I want to spend the rest of my life, is to help them,'" Bowen recalls.

Bowen pledged annual scholarships of up to $15,000 at his school and approached the heads of Rhode Island's six other private colleges and universities for help. Some promised tuition aid to those who qualified; others promised pre-college assistance. The scholarships run through 2024 to cover the youngest children.