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Secrets from the highest-grossing Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale

On September 11, 2010, Richmond, Va., was host to the highest-grossing bake sale in the two-year history of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer. I was proud to have had a hand in the event and recently was asked to write a recap of what made it so successful. Here’s what I sent the nonprofit:

The Japanese have a form of martial arts called “Aikido.” It focuses not on punching or kicking your opponents, but rather on using your opponents’ own energy to gain control of them or throw them away from you.

Our sale wasn't slick. We were all about hand-painted signs and banners.

Anyone who has ever faced pediatric cancer will tell you that – despite being an abhorrent coward – it’s a powerful opponent. Medical professionals use surgeries and toxic treatments to fight it. Friends and families use hope, love and prayer (among other things).

But imagine if we could redirect cancer’s own rage and power right back at it? This, I realized recently, is exactly what Cookies for Kids’ Cancer does.

On August 22, 2010, Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Founder Gretchen Holt Witt posted this status update to her Facebook page:  “It wasn’t good news. It was awful news. We start high-dose chemo on Monday morning. My heart is literally shattering into a million pieces. But I’ll pick myself up and go at it again. Liam needs me. He needs all of us. Pray for him and hold a bake sale.

Those words were read 300 miles away in Richmond, Va. And just 20 days later – in direct response to cancer’s attack – a handful of bake sale coordinators, a dozen “team captains” and hundreds of moms, dads, caring souls, big-hearted businesses, kids, scouts and students raised more than $34,000 to fund pediatric cancer research. Every dollar earned was matched by a grant from “Glad to Give™.”

Our best bake sale tip: Tell a story
The single biggest takeaway from our successful Richmond bake sale is: Tell a story. Think of it as practicing Aikido. Speak and write powerful words about the sickening blows that pediatric cancer intends for the most vulnerable among us, and then just stand back and watch as the world rises up and redirects that force and fury right back at cancer.

Our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Here are some other things that contributed to our team’s success:

Act quickly. Gretchen’s heart-breaking plea gave us a sense of urgency, and our fresh emotions translated to dollars. If something compels you to raise money for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer (a diagnosis, a surgery, a relapse), act swiftly and you will be rewarded for it. Set your bake sale date just weeks, not months, away. Don’t give volunteers or donors much time to ponder their participation. Just share the story, then say, “I really need your help in two weeks.”

Ask and you shall receive. There is something about pediatric cancer that is so, so wrong. Speak the words “kids’ cancer,” and people will do almost anything you ask.

We asked for an anchor location and the Carytown Merchants Association gave us a mile-long shopping district and merchants that donated a percentage of their sales. We pleaded for bakers and Gretchen’s former employer – CRT/tanaka – volunteered its staff for a 12-hour baking blitz. We asked for industrial ovens and got the Mixing Bowl Pastry Shop. We asked for cookies and got 6,000 frozen cookie pucks from Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies.

We asked for anything and everything – public service announcements, cardboard boxes, big photos of affected families, gift bags, donation jars, rolls of kraft paper and mistint paint for banners. When it was apparent that our sale was going to be big, Amber van der Meer (mother of Richmond warrior Ber van der Meer) simply told her “Caring Bridge” subscribers that we needed another corporate sponsor. The next day, Qdoba Mexican Grill donated a thousand entrée coupons (a $6 value; we sold them for $3 a pop). If you have any need, simply tell your story, flash the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer logo, and ask

Use what you’ve got. We had a talented media relations professional, so news of our city-wide bake sale was on all three network news shows, local newspapers, blogs and a popular radio station. (See links below to listen/watch.)

WINN Transportation donated the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley

A family connection to WINN Transportation earned us the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Mobile Bake Sale Trolley that conducted business-day visits to some of Richmond’s most generous companies as well as a popular, outdoor lunchtime plaza. A vacant restaurant turned into the first-ever Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Drive Thru. Girl Scout volunteers helped us score two grocery store locations that otherwise wouldn’t have allowed solicitors! And our children – with aprons around their necks and signs in their hands – earned more money than grown-ups ever could.

Call on every kind-hearted, hard-working person you know!

Recruit what you need. Look holistically at all the skill sets you need. A major event needs: sales people (able to secure locations and make big asks), team captains (to recruit volunteers and staff a single bake sale location), a publicity person and/or spokesperson, people with corporate connections, a professional baker, a financial person (to tally dollars), and a local family or two willing to be the courageous face of pediatric cancer in photos at every sale location.

Use social media and technology. We used Facebook and e-mail to plead for team captains, volunteers and bakers. An online “First Giving” account made it easy for friends to contribute to our specific from afar. A Facebook post simply wishing for a single donation in the memory of a former classmate, Scott Newhouse (who died of cancer at age 12 back in the 1980s), generated hundreds of dollars in long-distance pledges from Scott’s former classmates, warming the hearts of his mother and brother. Facebook posts on the walls of contributors thanked them for being a “good cookie” and included a link to the First Giving page.

Got trolley?

A coordinator’s blog told the story behind the event and everybody involved found a way to link to it and to the blogs and journals of families fighting cancer. A Facebook event page was created and featured excitement-generating updates (new locations, new donations) and hundreds were invited to “attend.” A week before the event, a Flip camera was used to create a music video of several families painting dozens of banners and handheld signs in preparation for the big day. The closing message said simply, “September 11th for Gretchen and Liam the Brave.” The video captured the spirit of our sale and the event preview was watched by hundreds on Facebook and YouTube. Our media genius used Twitter to tweet about our latest news or needs.
 
Keep it simple. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer can be a lemonade stand, a bike-a-thon or a pub crawl. It can be whatever you have the passion to make it. The magic of our Richmond bake sale was its simplicity. We might have had a media machine behind us and a trolley with professional banners, but we were anything but slick. Cookies for Kids’ Cancer allows for local creativity and local customization. Our volunteers felt that. Our sale was about cardboard signs and hand-painted banners. It was about teams of moms running up to cars at stoplights with baskets of cookies, and about kids in smudged aprons spontaneously setting up new, little sales locations on their own and glowing at the results. After just a few hours, our bake sale tables had the look of a favorite stuffed animal.
 
A million amazing moments
The Richmond sale was unbelievably inspirational for everyone involved. (Watch the video of sales held in Carytown.) Several mothers approached our team captains asking, “How can my family get involved in something like this?” One woman bought a pile of cookies. After listening to our sales pitch on the need for better treatments she said, with tears in her eyes, “I know… I’m a nurse in a pediatric cancer ward.”

Two young harp players randomly set up across the street from this sale to busk for cash. Later a rainbow appeared despite a lack of rain. At the end of the heavenly day, we learned we'd surpassed our goal & sobbed with gratitude at the generosity we'd seen.

A young college student expressed her delight at our cause, explaining that she was a pediatric cancer survivor. A Hispanic man on a bicycle gazed at an image of Ber van der Meer in the hospital and handed over a crumpled bill. When a volunteer encouraged him to take a bag of cookies, he shook his head and said, in broken English, “I just want to help.” As he rode away, she unfolded the bill and discovered it was a twenty. Her Facebook status at the end of that day said what we all felt: “What I know for sure: more people are generous than not.”

 Relevant links: 

DAYS KAYAKED: 13
GUEST KAYAKERS: 4

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Cookies for Kids’ Cancer Bake Sale

100 percent of your tax-deductible donation will go directly to pediatric cancer research & will be matched by Glad Products (maker of Gladware).

My “Year of Wellness” officially begins in September but, compared to six-year-old Liam Witt, I’ve already had a lifetime of wellness. So have my kids.   

Liam is the son of Gretchen Holt Witt, a former Richmond co-worker and the founder of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer (CKC). When Liam was two and a half, he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer of the nervous system. That was three and a half years ago, and since then cancer has given him very little peace.    

Pediatric cancer remains the number one disease that claims the lives of our children. Each year cancer kills more kids under the age of 18 than asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis and AIDS combined. Yet pediatric cancer research is grossly underfunded by the government and largely ignored by pharmaceutical companies. Imagine being told that your child has a 30 percent chance to live and that the reason why is directly related to how little money is spent on research.  


Lion-hearted Gretchen Holt Witt
What would you do if you were in Gretchen’s shoes? The answer is different for all of us. Like her, I’d seek out the best doctors in the world. I’d immerse myself in information. But here’s one thing I can’t conceive of doing simultaneously: founding a nonprofit that has enabled thousands of everyday folks to raise more than one million dollars for pediatric cancer research, one bake sale at a time.     

Gretchen is hunting down a cowardly disease that preys on children. A former athlete, she’s been a warrior for more than three years now. That’s why her Facebook post last week stopped me in my tracks.      

It said, “…It wasn’t good news. It was awful news. We start high-dose chemo on Monday morning. My heart is literally shattering into a million pieces. But I’ll pick myself up and go at it again. Liam needs me. He needs all of us.” It concluded: “Pray for him and hold a bake sale.”       

Gretchen with Liam (when he was in remission)

 

I remain haunted by an interview that Gretchen gave more than a year ago to CBS National News. In it, she declares, “I have to know that I did everything that I possibly could…” to save her son’s life. You don’t have to know her to see that she means that.      

 Having created an idiot-proof way to for anyone to help, she gave me no choice but to act when I read her post.       

Why Richmond, Virginia, is “Easy to Love”
Here’s the timeline of what happened over the next 96 hours:       

Sunday, August 22 – I send a late-night, bake sale proposal via e-mail to three good friends –  Jennifer Pounders, Michele Rhudy and Marcy Walsh, all former co-workers of Gretchen’s – saying, “I think we need to do this, guys.”       

Monday, August 23 – All three women jump on board immediately. A phone call decides the bake sale date and time (September 11 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and the tentative location (Carytown, Richmond’s answer to Georgetown). By the close of day, we have two Girl Scout troops and a professional baker. Best of all, the staff of my old public relations agency, CRT/tanaka (where Gretchen formerly worked), agrees to handle bake sale media relations and to close their office on September 10 in order to bake thousands of cookies. Their regional offices in New York, D.C. and Los Angeles quickly agree to bake as well.     

Wednesday, August 25 – the Carytown Merchants Association agrees to host our “mile-long bake sale,” and the Mixing Bowl Pastry Shop donates its industrial kitchen for a 12-hour baking blitz.       

Thursday, August 26 – Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies in Massachusetts donates 6,000 frozen gourmet cookie “pucks.” CRT/tanaka steps up to cover the shipping, secures the Short Pump Wal-Mart as a bake sale location, and scores the event’s first television interview. WINN Transportation offers up its trolley for CKC’s first-ever Mobile Bake Sale.       

Small contributions make a big difference
Since then, there have been too many acts of kindness and goodwill – large and small – to enumerate. My e-mail Inbox is a popcorn kettle, and I can only imagine what the next 12 days will bring.       

More than anything, I hope it brings piles of money – healing, curing, life-saving dollars.      

Gretchen recently e-mailed to say how small contributions make a tremendous difference. “We could be so much further ahead on this bloody disease if we just focused attention on it,” she wrote. “The first [modest] trial we helped fund had been waiting for funding for years. Years, Wendy! Why don’t people understand that what’s happening to my precious child could be happening to their child just as easily? We should all care and get involved and demand more for our children and be outraged that we’ve accepted this as a nation.”      

Be a good cookie
Liam currently is fighting for his life. And if his story rips your heart out, here are three easy things to do:     

1. Come buy cookies! Honor Liam’s family, all the courageous parents and children battling this disease, and this tremendous volunteer effort by supporting this cause and buying some cookies (or anything from a wide variety of baked goods) from our Cookies for Kids Cancer Bake Sale on Saturday, September 11 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There will be tables up and down Carytown (many merchants are donating a percentage of that day’s sales; Ellwood Thompson’s is stocking its booth with vegan treats!) and we’re even offering a “Cookies Carry Out & Drive Thru” at 2901 West Cary (across the street from the Byrd Theatre). Other locations include the Barnes & Noble at Libbie Place (in the near West End , look for the trolley from 10-2), the Short Pump Wal-Mart, the Sam’s Club on Midlothian and the Midlothian Kroger. (Checks payable to “Cookies for Kids Cancer.” Please check back for additional locations).  

2. Have cookies delivered! Invite the CKC Mobile Bake Sale Trolley to your Richmond office location on Friday, September 10. Help secure internal approval, communicate to your co-workers through whatever channels are required and get people up out of their seats to come buy some life-changing treats. (Contact Jennifer Pounders at 338-4514 or pounderspr@verizon.net.) 

3. Make a secure, online donation to our Cookies for Kids Cancer Richmond Bake Sale. (…by clicking on the preceding sentence; it’s a hyperlink if you are new to those!). 

One hundred percent of your donation will go directly to pediatric cancer research and your donation will be matched by Glad Products (maker of Gladware). Cookies for Kids’ Cancer is a recognized 501(c)3 public charity. Your donation is tax deductible to the fullest extent allowable by law.       

Thank you for being a good cookie.   

Useful links: 

 

DAYS KAYAKED: 12 (including some lovely mother-daughter outings)
GUEST KAYAKERS: 4