Living Giving: The Story of the 'Mile 7 Shirt'
[Editor’s Note: Excited by the submissions to the new Live It Award category in this year’s Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards program, we’ve decided to present the stories of those fundraising pros who are “living giving” by supporting charitable causes both in their professional and personal lives. Bryce Gaudian is development manager at Agilis Co. in Albert Lea, Minn. Got someone in mind? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Youth Villages, a Memphis, Tenn.-based national leader in helping children who struggle with the effects of abuse, neglect and trauma, has a highly successful running program for the children in its care. This is an account of how one lost shirt led to more than 5,300 (and counting) running shirts being sent from race directors on all seven continents to encourage and inspire the young runners at Youth Villages.
I’ve been running marathons for years as a St. Jude Hero to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Finally, in December 2009, I was going to run the actual marathon named for this epicenter of compassion — the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. Having raised close to $25,000 from hundreds of folks across the country for the event, I wanted to personally hand-deliver the money while in Memphis. Lori O’Brien, then a senior vice president at ALSAC, the fundraising arm of St. Jude, agreed to accept the funds on behalf of St. Jude the day before the marathon. Lori told me she would cheer for me at mile 7, her usual perch for watching the marathon.
The temperature forecast for race morning was 33 degrees, and although I’m a hardy Midwesterner, I planned on wearing my long-sleeve Boston Marathon shirt from 2008 underneath my St. Jude shirt. I told Lori since she would be cheering for me and that I would be sufficiently warmed up by mile 7, I would toss her my shirt for fun. She said she’d be ready for it and agreed to mail it back to me.
When I spotted Lori the next day, she stashed the shirt in the bushes for safe keeping, but it must have gotten scooped up by the clean-up crew. Two days after my return to Minnesota, I received an e-mail from Lori, expressing her grief over its loss, and a week later, a brand-new 2008 Boston Marathon shirt arrived in my mailbox! I had no idea how Lori pulled that off, but I was profoundly impressed.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2011. Our high-school cross-country team in Albert Lea, Minn., where I volunteer as a coach, came up with a great shirt for the summer running camp, so I sent one to fellow runner Lori, as a special thank-you to her for having gone the extra mile to replace my special shirt almost two years earlier.
Lori donated the shirt to the Youth Villages running program, where she is now national development director. The program was having a banquet where the children could win prizes and draw from a special table of items. One of the young runners chose the Albert Lea Tigers cross-country shirt and, Lori told me, was just beaming. And the other children were coveting that particular shirt!
What if … ?
If one running shirt brought that much joy to one child, what would happen if I could come up with a campaign to obtain running shirts on a much bigger scale for Youth Villages?
I found running websites with race information and began e-mailing race directors around the world. Several days later, packages began arriving. And more packages. And boxes. And boxes. And boxes. From across the planet. Beautiful, high-quality marathon, ultra-marathon, trail run, half-marathon, 10K, 5K, Ironman Triathlon shirts began arriving from as far away as Ghana, Brazil, Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Egypt … (from 39 countries so far) and all across the U.S. (from 39 states and counting). The Boston Marathon even sent 20 stunning marathon shirts! And the icing on the top (of the world) and the bottom (of the world)? Shirts from the North Pole Marathon and the Antarctica Ice Marathon. We even got finisher medals — close to 500 from various races!
Youth Villages put up a large world map in one of its facilities, and as the kids receive shirts, they put a pin in the map to indicate where the shirts came from (an invaluable geography teaching moment).
Apparently, the finisher medals are so treasured that the kids who’ve already received them won’t take them off.
Lori shares that the kids are incredibly encouraged and inspired with these shirts and are “treating them like gold!”
“It is amazing how so many people are reaching across continents to help these children have a better life,” she told me.
This project has been a natural outgrowth from, and wonderful complement to, my running marathons for worthy nonprofit organizations. I was able to personally travel to and tour Youth Villages in December 2011, and actually run a half marathon with one of the children in its care. In my 37-plus years of running, I’ve never been more inspired than when I crossed the finish line side by side with the 17-year-old from Youth Villages who was running his first major half marathon. I was very privileged to use the occasion to raise funds for Youth Villages, and generous donors from across the country came alongside the effort and provided more than $11,000 that I was able to hand-deliver to Lori.
In the past 12 years, donors have come alongside other fundraising efforts through other marathons that I have run to raise more than $95,000 for organizations including Operation Smile and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
I like to think of the marathons I run as metaphors for the “marathons” so many hurting children and families are “running” toward wholeness — be it suffering from childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases, being ostracized by virtue of being born with a cleft palate or cleft lip, having been abused and/or abandoned as a child, and any number of other life challenges that leave people feeling hopeless and unloved.
Having hundreds of people to whom you are accountable because they have willingly come alongside your efforts and sent thousands of dollars is tremendous motivation to endure each marathon. I tell my faithful donors that “even if I have to crawl, I’ll finish the race!”
I would encourage other runners to use their passion for running to raise much-needed funds for worthy nonprofit organizations. The running community around the world has been extraordinarily generous to come alongside this effort. It has been a joy to see this outpouring of support. It’s very moving and encouraging to know that there are people around the world who will “give you the shirt off their back.”