College students remain virtually committed to fundraising

The Virginia Tech chapters of TKE and Tri Delta didn't let social distancing stop them from their annual fundraiser for St. Jude. Not only did members put on a successful virtual event, they surpassed their anticipated goal.

At some point, the brothers and sisters of Virginia Tech's Tau Kappa Epsilon and Tri Delta must make their way back to their campus situated between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, and retrieve the rest of their belongings.

Like other college students across the country, they will forever associate March 2020 with a stressful relocation, stuffing whatever they could into their vehicles while leaving so much else behind.

Perhaps then they can gather, perhaps back at the VT fraternity house they call The Barn, and celebrate together what they achieved despite being so far apart in April – a TKE Week like none other, an audacious fundraising goal surpassed for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, an example of innovation fueled by collegiate camaraderie.

Before actor John Krasinski's YouTube sensation, "Some Good News," before the late night charity talk shows, the TKEs and Tri Deltas improvised a "No More Cancer Rally" for St. Jude that exceeded all expectations.

Most of them back in their homes, where they'd grown up.

"It helped us all put into perspective all that we do have, not whatever we might be losing," said Jenny Fu, a junior at Virginia Tech and the Tri Delta philanthropy chair. "Yes, we were sitting at our houses, but we saw how much power there was in just reaching out to make a difference."

Jenny Fu

For nearly six months, they had planned for another sort of No More Cancer Rally, one that would be held on the St. Jude campus with streaming back to the TKE and Tri Delta houses to kick off TKE Week.

The goal: raise $150,000 for the kids of St. Jude. That would push the total fundraising for St. Jude over the past four years, from VT's TKE and Tri Delta community, to nearly $1.2 million.

Kyle Scott, a junior and the TKE head philanthropy chair, got the call from St. Jude in early March, a few weeks before communities and colleges started shutting down. To protect the vulnerable children with compromised immune systems, St. Jude was canceling all planned visits. 

"I remember getting that call from Kyle, that the Memphis trip was canceled," said Terrence Harrell, the TKE assistant philanthropy chair. "I was just thinking it was going to be a huge hit to the fundraising. Kyle and I and others had visited last year, and we had planned everything around younger members being inspired and motivated by their trip.

"I was worried, but even then I had no doubt we were going to do as much as we could."

The next setback came when Virginia Tech announced it was closing for the semester.

Harrell and Scott would be stuck back home in central New Jersey, Fu back in northern Virginia and their friends mostly dispersed back to their towns, taking classes online from their childhood bedrooms. 

But then necessity became the mother of, if not invention, then certainly innovation.

For Scott, additional motivation came from three important influences. His mother and sister are both nurses on the front lines as part of the healthcare hero armada, and his maternal grandmother had been a steadfast St. Jude supporter since founder Danny Thomas was the lead fundraiser.

Scott also thought back to his first visit to St. Jude, as a freshman in 2018, in what he calls "a life-altering experience."

St. Jude

"They've done nothing to deserve where they are and I've done nothing to deserve where I am," Scott said. "And then it was just like the uncertainty of the situation, the crazy circumstances, it liberated us. Nobody else had done this before, so let's make it great."

TKE Week would occur virtually with the fraternity and their partner sorority Tri Delta utilizing Zoom and social media to raise funds and awareness for St. Jude.

"We did get rid of the goal of $150,000," Harrell said. "We thought maybe it's now a little too much to ask when people may not know if the next paycheck is coming."

For Harrell, the planning helped him deal with another loss, when his beloved boxer, Milo, became sick and had to be put down. He'd been in elementary school when Milo became part of his life. "He was my best pal but I had to redirect that energy toward helping St. Jude."

They would start April 2, almost two weeks into the new (ab)normal, and it was at the first event, an online virtual tour of St. Jude, that the months of planning and weeks of improvisation looked like they would pay off.

"Even though we were supposed to do that in person, even on Zoom, there was so much energy," Fu said. "And it's like a week and a half into the quarantine, so I think everyone was so eager to have social interaction and be part of something super exciting."

The No More Cancer Rally followed the next day. Within five minutes, more than 90 faces had blipped into the Zoom portal, and more than 150 would join by the time it finished 90 minutes later.

ESPN broadcaster Jay Bilas delivered a recorded message, as did former Virginia Tech football player Joey Slye, whose brother died of acute myeloid leukemia at age 20. 

Said Scott: "In the Zoom chat, people were saying, 'I'll throw in 50 bucks if someone matches it now.'"

In 90 minutes, they raised $12,000, which grew to $30,000 by the end of the day.

Another day featured chapter members posting baby pictures as gratitude for healthy childhoods. If the day devoted to video stories of St. Jude patients stirred emotions, the one showing the impact of funds for St. Jude – $100 pays for one blood count test, $500 pays for one bone marrow treatment – helped reinforce the week's motto of "Every dollar matters."

That $150,000 fundraising goal they agreed to set aside? Suddenly, it no longer seemed impossible. 

Harrell remembers how "rejuvenated" he felt when TKE and Tri Delta efforts put them over the line.

In the last four years, the two chapters at Virginia Tech have raised about $1.2 million for St. Jude. In the early morning hours after the goal had been reached, there was a virtual celebration. Perhaps not quite the same as the original plans for a TKE Week finale at a formal in South Carolina, but no less satisfying.

"Everybody opened up," Harrell said. "It was especially meaningful to hear the younger guys giving their perspective on how amazing it was for them."

If the weeks following, taking online classes, haven't quite matched the energy of that week, a glow remains. 

Fu – whose schedule recently included a 7 a.m. online exam ("Web Based Decision Support Systems") – is a student fully committed to the Virginia Tech motto – Ut Prosim, or "that I may serve."

"It's easy for people to underestimate the power college students can have," Fu said. "It's not like Virginia Tech is this powerful Ivy League school. We're in Southwest Virginia, kind of in the middle of nowhere, and look at what we could do, getting that many people together for something.

"No matter the circumstances, it's not impossible."

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