Run a marathon and raise $500? Rachel Dragicevic’s immediate reaction was: “I’m not doing either of those things.”
Yet those two tasks were the beginning of an eight-year journey toward raising more than $1 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
It started with a desire to run.
Dragicevic ran her first half marathon in 2012, and the experience led the St. Louis native to pursue another. Her childhood friend Katy Ravensberg suggested running an out-of-town race together. A Google search turned up St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend, and the news the half marathon was sold out.
The only way to run was to register for the full marathon and make a fundraising commitment as a St. Jude Hero.
Dragicevic said no. Ravensberg urged her to reconsider.
They began raising money with what Dragicevic fondly calls “super un-organized events.”
Thanks to the passage of time, Dragicevic and Ravensberg even remember their first fundraising event differently. One says it was a lemonade stand. The other maintains they sold popsicles.
The certainty? It was a hot day. So hot, balloons were popping from the heat. Most of the popsicles, if there were in fact popsicles, melted.
No explanation was given for what happened to all the lemonade, but they raised around $300, giving them the kind of success needed to believe they actually could raise money for a cause.
The first year, they smashed through their $500 goals — raising $10,000 for St. Jude.
The evening before that first race, Dragicevic and Ravensberg attended a pasta dinner celebrating St. Jude Heroes. The family of a St. Jude patient named Ingram spoke, bringing the pair to tears.
“We’re doing everything we can for St. Jude for the rest of our lives,” Dragicevic said of their reaction that night.
They formed a team and started asking friends to join them. Their name — The Dudes — riffed on a sign created for their first fundraising event: “It’s for St. Jude, dude.”
“It became really fun,” Ravensberg said. “It became a platform for a lot of our friends who hadn’t donated to charity before. We always made sure our events were really fun. That was our number one thing… It was a mess, though. It was definitely unorganized.”
Now they have an executive board with 15 members in St. Louis and eight in Columbia, Missouri, who plan bowling, sand volleyball, golf and croquet fundraising events throughout the year. They’re quite popular, too. Ravensberg says the golf tournament typically sells out in one day.
While about 100 people regularly attend all of their events, the majority of their fundraising comes from online efforts through social media.
The Dudes are a case of outsiders who’ve become insiders. The team, which consisted of 39 runners in 2020, is largely made up of people who only run one race a year — the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. Many will run the full or half marathon even if they haven’t trained.
“They only will run for St. Jude,” Dragicevic said. “It’s so funny. They are really only there for the St. Jude experience.”
“We have an amazing group of people who all care about raising money for St. Jude,” she said. “I don’t think the race even really matters. No one even talks about it.”
In 2016, four years after founding The Dudes, Dragicevic took another step in life she never dreamed of: working for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. Her role as Senior Regional Development Director finds her working closely with St. Jude Heroes.
She loves her job because she recalls the feelings of not wanting to sign up for a full marathon and not wanting to raise $500 because she didn’t want to ask others for money. Now she helps people feeling the same way do exactly what she did: raise funds to support St. Jude.
Ravensberg, who is an elementary school teacher, said she can’t believe how far they’ve come. There were many hard moments along the way where she thought it might be time to stop — be it events where volunteers didn’t show up or the planning was taking up too large a chunk of time. In those moments, she always came back to the St. Jude mission.
“It feels like all the ideals and what I think is right are encompassed in this hospital,” Ravensberg said. “I can’t think of a more awful thing than for a baby to have something like this and not be able to survive it.”
It’s why The Dudes have set quite a goal for the future.
“We want to raise another million in the next three years,” Dragicevic said.
It’s undeniably bold. Yet Dragicevic and her teammates think it’s possible. After all, they raised nearly $260,000 in 2020, even with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing them to cancel some of their in-person fundraising events.
The potential of raising $1 million in three years is an impressive measure for how far they’ve come.
“I’m still confused with how we are where we are now,” Ravensberg said. “We started with a popsicle stand.”