Elton McDonald’s Tunnel Vision pays off

Following his appearance on the cover of Maclean's, the Toronto tunnel digger's fundraising effort takes off—and leaves him deeply moved

(Photograph by Della Rollins)

Animals play a big part in the mythology of Elton McDonald’s home. There was the old cat who became like a kitten again after getting electrocuted by a refrigerator. There was his sister’s ball python, named Anthony after her ex, to which she fed frozen mice but was too afraid to hold. Or the “outcast frog” that turned cannibal and who, not knowing what else to do, they fed to a neighbour’s turtle.

So it makes sense that one place Elton will bring the kids in his boys’ club to this summer is the Toronto Zoo. “That will be fun for kids to actually see animals,” he says. “Tigers and whatever they have there. Polar bears.”

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He and his family launched Eltons Tunnel Vision Fund a week ago today, after he became famous as the mystery Toronto tunneller and landed on newspapers’ front pages. This week he appeared on the cover of Maclean’s and in a profile inside the magazine that explained for the first time what drove him to build the tunnel and how he did it.

The plan was to use whatever money he could raise with his 15 minutes of fame to found a boys’ club and put kids in his tough northwest Toronto neighbourhood to work mowing lawns this summer, like he used to do (and still does). He also wanted to build his own contracting business.

That crowdfunding drive met and surpassed Elton’s $10,000 goal over the weekend, soaring some $9,000 between Friday morning and Saturday morning—it must be said in large part due to public interest generated by Elton’s profile in Maclean’s, which the magazine published online Friday morning.

Related: The incredible true story of the Toronto tunnel digger

Elton, a 22-year-old construction worker, dug his tunnel in secret with a buddy in the wild ravine below Driftwood Court, the Toronto housing project where he grew up. Over the last couple of years the tunnel grew into almost a fixation: he worked on it in the middle of the night, after work, on weekends.

It was a narrow, 10-m-long getaway from his neighbourhood and, perhaps, from his boisterous home. Located not far from York University, which will host part of the 2015 Pan Am Games this summer, his tunnel triggered media speculation that it was part of a terrorist plot.

Elton never dreamed the tunnel would put money into his hands. A huge push in the crowdfunding drive arrived Saturday, when a single anonymous donor contributed $5,000. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought my phone was broken or something,” says Elton.

Elton and his two siblings each have a bedroom on the second floor of the family’s townhouse, and talk between themselves from their rooms across the narrow hall. Whenever Eltons Tunnel Vision got a new donation, they’d holler about it from room to room. Elton tried to post thank-you notes for each contribution.

But when the $5,000 arrived, the hollering was more muted. “People earn their money, make a living, and $5,000 is not a small amount of money,” says Anora Graham, Elton’s 24-year-old sister. “Elton was in awe. Like we were all shocked, but Elton especially,” Anora says. “He went downstairs and he told our mom about it and he was just like—it seemed like he was emotional about it. He was so moved someone believed in him that much and was willing to give that much money to support him.”

He has now raised over $16,000 on the page, hosted by GoFundMe.com. He plans to use the unexpected windfall to expand his club from being merely a lawn-mowing and landscaping work program to include outings and other kinds of get-togethers. To the Ontario Science Centre, the CN Tower, maybe even a dinner downtown.

The club will begin this summer. Elton will invite between five and 10 boys between the ages of 13 and 16 to participate, and he will canvass the neighbourhood and distribute flyers to drum up interest.

Things could have gone quite differently. For a few days last week, Elton thought his fundraising drive wouldn’t get anywhere near to his $10,000 goal. For three days it sat—stalled—at just under $1,500. “I could sense that he was a bit discouraged,” says Anora. “And I’m just like, Elton, you know what? You just have to stay positive.”

The following day, the Maclean’s profile reignited interest in the fundraising drive, and brought new traffic to Eltons Tunnel Vision. Yesterday, with money still trickling in at a steady pace, Anora and Elton sat down in Elton’s bedroom to hammer out a budget for the summer program, and for Elton’s business.

“We’re just getting all the details down now,” Anora says. “It’s really exciting because it’s actually starting to come before our eyes, like, the actual program and the business aspect and we’re actually writing it down on paper.” He’d already prepared a list of necessities. They will need rakes, shovels, a wheelbarrow, lots of gloves, a lawnmower and face masks, a weed-whacker, a leaf-blower, a pitchfork and a pick axe. “I guess he likes pick axes,” says Anora.

It’s the classic tunnel-building tool.