Community rallies around family

By Kate Barcellos
Staff Writer

Rutland’s Applebee’s restaurant scheduled all five managers to cater to the crowds they anticipated last Wednesday night.

They needed all five.

Everyone at the restaurant — which was standing-room-only at 5:30 p.m. — had arrived for one reason: to support the family of Stefanie Schaffer, who was gravely injured in a boat explosion and had both her legs amputated. She currently has to undergo dialysis for weakened kidneys.

“We’re hoping we can raise $25,000,” said Jen Baxter, co-organizer of the event and mother of Schaffer’s best friend, Alex. “If we can keep this going. We’re at 100 percent occupancy.”

Applebee’s donated 15 percent of proceeds from all purchases from the evening, including alcohol, to Schaffer’s fund. Organizer Brittany Cavacas stood by the far right side of the bar and sold 50/50 raffle tickets to a line of community members for $10 per sleeve, three for $5, or one for $2.

But Cavacas was selling ribbons of tickets by the fistful.

“Everyone in here has come especially for this,” Cavacas said. “One guy came up and just donated $100.”

The fundraising event started at 4 p.m., and Cavacas said in the first two hours they had already raised at least $1,200.

On June 30, Stefanie and her mother, Stacey Schaffer; her sister, Brooke; and their stepfather, Paul Bender, were on a boat tour off the island of Exuma, about 130 miles south of Nassau in the Bahamas.

The boat burst into flames following an explosion shortly after 9 a.m.

Stefanie Schaffer suffered two broken arms, a broken wrist, a fractured spine and internal injuries to her kidneys, spleen and liver. One of her arms, the wrist and her spine required surgery. Her lower legs were amputated.

Stacey Schaffer suffered a fractured lower right leg, a shattered left ankle, a fractured right wrist, at least two broken ribs and a contusion on her lungs.

Cavacas said the funds raised will go toward all medical expenses for Stefanie Schaffer, and pay for a medivac van to transport Stefanie from Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Just inside the door, Schaffer’s father sat in awe of the massive crowd that had come out for his family.

“This is overwhelming,” said George Schaffer. “I almost didn’t want to come out. It’s hard to talk about it in front of people.’

Schaffer said once he arrived, though, he saw the restaurant filled with people, many of whom he hadn’t seen in a long time.

“I didn’t know what to expect until I couldn’t find a place to park,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said though his daughter has good and bad days, she’s been more upbeat recently, and the family hopes to move her to Boston within the week, where she’ll start rehab.

Schaffer said they want to be able to get Stefanie prostheses that look realistic and natural, and though they’re not sure of the cost, they’ve researched limbs that cost around $20,000 apiece.

“It’s hard to get over the reality of how hard things are for her,” Schaffer said. “We’re excited for her to come back to Vermont.”

Cavacas, who calls the Schaffers her “second family,” said Stefanie Schaffer came out of a medically induced coma a week ago, and is now aware of her amputations.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Cavacas said.

To avoid muscle atrophy, Cavacas said the hope is that Stefanie Schaffer will be fitted for prostheses during the next week, and it is unknown whether she will need a transplant for her kidney issues.

Schaffer’s friends Maya Drake and Jenny Grenier, who each attended the fundraiser with family in tow, said Applebee’s has long been a special place for young people in the Rutland community, and so was the ideal place to host the event.

Drake’s mother, Jennifer Leeson, said she’s not surprised at how the families of Rutland have banded together over Schaffer’s accident, to support her family.

“Kids in this community really are family,” Leeson said. “No matter where they go, they come back and stay together, always.”

Enjoying her meal across the restaurant was another friend: Natasha McPhee, who said she also planned to host a fundraiser this month for the Schaffers at her place of work — Vermont Tap House.

“She’s a longtime friend,” McPhee said. “We would go to Northwoods pool in Rutland Town when we were young and on family vacations together.”

McPhee has already started another fundraiser: bracelets, engraved with Stefanie’s initials and the words “StefStrong,” which she’s carrying with her and selling for $3 apiece.

But McPhee said she’s had people offering her more money for each bracelet, just to donate to the cause.

“We ordered 300 bracelets to start,” McPhee said. “100 are already reserved for sale.”

Cavacas said she commends Applebee’s for all of their help and dedication to the fundraiser for the Schaffer family.

“They’ve been so easy to work with,” Cavacas said. “They’ve even reserved places at the bar so we could sell tickets.”

kate.barcellos@rutlandherald.com