Carson King speaks at Taft Middle School about what he called his “accidental” fundraiser for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital and the power of social media on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. King’s sign requesting beer money during a broadcast of ESPN’s College GameDay became a fundraiser for the hospital, eventually raising a $3 million donation. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Carson King speaks at Taft Middle School about what he called his “accidental” fundraiser for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital and the power of social media on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019. King’s sign requesting beer money during a broadcast of ESPN’s College GameDay became a fundraiser for the hospital, eventually raising a $3 million donation. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

As his profile in late September skyrocketed — and with it the number of donations he inspired for the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital — Carson King encountered pitfalls and valleys, particularly related to the social-media platform that propelled his rise.

“When the media stuff shifted and it got focused on the negative, honestly, it was really hard,” King, 24, of Altoona, told a gym full of teens and preteens Monday at Taft Middle School in Cedar Rapids.

“I was really upset. I got the phone call at work. I had to leave work. I couldn’t focus.”

But King said he thought it through and called his parents to tell them how he was going to handle the apparent resurrection of “offensive and hurtful” tweets he made at age 16 — nearly eight years ago.

He held a news conference and apologized, noting he had been quoting the Comedy Central show “Tosh. O” and was “embarrassed and stunned” upon reflection.

“I called some of the media people and said, ‘I made mistakes, I need to open up,’” King told the middle-schoolers. “I need to show people that you can make mistakes in your past, especially as a kid.

“Everyone makes mistakes. You guys make mistakes. I still make a lot of mistakes. Teachers make mistakes. You can learn and grow, and that’s the journey.”

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King’s impromptu weeks-long Children’s Hospital fundraiser ended up generating more than $3 million from more than 35,000 donors in all 50 states and Puerto Rico — with about $600,000 coming from Iowa alone.

Spinoff campaigns have continued since, with a bobblehead in his honor raising money for the hospital, along with T-shirts as well as individual donors inspired by King’s good will.

To date, he told Monday’s crowd, more than $3,010,000 has come in related to his Busch Light-appeal that started the whole thing during an ESPN College GameDay shoot in Ames for the Iowa-Iowa State University faceoff Sept. 14.

King painted a picture for students of the “luck” he contracted that day when, at 4:30 a.m., he rolled up outside Jack Trice Stadium with a handmade sign asking for help replenishing his Busch Light supply — along with details of his Venmo account.

The hope was for a few laughs and a “couple bucks,” King said. But even in the predawn hours he and his buddies were too late for a spot by the main stage. They noticed a secondary stage off in the corner, “in the middle of nowhere,” and decided to go stand by it.

“We got really lucky, the entire College GameDay crew came over,” King said. “Within 15 minutes, my friend Tyler said, ‘Carson, who keeps blowing up your phone?’ I looked down and it was my Venmo notifications.”

He had reached $400 in only 15 minutes, and King told the students Monday he was dreaming of a Pizza Ranch feast until the total bumped up to $600 just a few minutes later.

“That’s when I kind of decided, there’s something a little bit better I can do,” he said. “I don’t need this. I have a job. This could be something we turn into something really positive for a lot of people.”

King announced plans to redirect the gifts to the Children’s Hospital via social media, sparking a flurry of donations from across the country. King made news in national publications and was flown to New York to appear on “Good Morning America.”

‘Focus on the journey’

But his meteoric rise — and all the good coming with it — was threatened by his teenage actions in a virtual reality where anyone can revive past photos, comments, and ideas with a few simple searches and shares. And King reminded his audience of that Monday.

“Social media is a super powerful thing,” he said, asking the students to raise their hands if they have a social media account, such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook. Nearly all did.

“How many of you guys think that in 10 years a picture you post, or something you put on there, will still be around?” King asked, prompting raised hands again from nearly all the students. “It is. It’s easy to find, too.”

His were eight years ago, he reminded the students. The words weren’t even his own.

“And that almost derailed a million-dollar fundraiser,” King said. “So something you do as a kid can affect you as an adult.”

Although Anheuser Busch cut ties with King for his tweets — while maintaining its earlier commitment to match donations — the fundraiser persisted and even gained steam, with members of the public rallying behind King and the grace that he on Monday acknowledged everyone deserves.

Using the metaphor of learning to walk, King reminded students of the praise they or their younger siblings receive when they take a first step — preceded and succeeded by many falls.

“When you get older they switch to, instead of focusing and praising you for trying, they kind of cut you down when you fail,” he said. “But you need to focus on the journey and how to get there. That’s what’s really important.”

That message stuck with Taft eighth-graders Kayla Kepler, Ava Ridenour and Gracie Wonase, who told The Gazette after King’s talk they followed his fundraising efforts and view him as a “big inspiration.”

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“I feel like everybody now is already going through what he did because we’re all pretty caught up in the whole social media thing,” Ridenour, 13, said. “You’re going to make mistakes, yes. And it’s going to affect your future. But don’t give up now.”

Kepler appreciated King’s decision to address his past decisions head-on.

“I think we all make mistakes,” she said. “It just matters how you deal with it.”

When asked whether he would support other causes — from the Humane Society to veterans to tigers — King said absolutely, and in fact announced ongoing fundraising efforts, including helping to grant wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

King said he’s planning to start his own foundation, with details forthcoming. And — while running a small fundraiser right now selling shirts to help local families buy groceries and clothes — King said he’s finalizing details to start raising money in the spring with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“Nothing you do is too small,” King said. “It can add up, and it can build. It can build from a $1.19 poster board to a few million fundraiser. It can start with a smile and end with a lifelong friendship.

“Anything you do can make a difference.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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