Over the coming days and weeks I will be sharing a series of posts that tell the story of Uplifting Athletes–a charitable effort that grew out of the personal tragedy of losing my father, Don Shirley, a respected role model and community hero. In writing these posts, I hope that I might be able to share personal insight into the hurdles that had to be cleared before the growth of Uplifting Athletes could begin. I encourage you to share your own thoughts and experiences with me as I relive this journey.
The Evolution of Uplifting Athletes
A few months later, I started exchanging e-mails with a new donor named David Wozniak. The first message he sent me was actually a thank you for an autographed item he won as a door prize. Through conversation, I learned that Dave had a wealth of experience in branding and advertising. He saw the same potential that we did in all of the facets of our effort and felt compelled to help. At the time, we were trying to promote an eBay auction for an autographed football donated by John Cappelletti. Dave’s insight made a big difference, and working with him was energizing.
My dad watched me graduate – this time with a master’s degree – in December 2004. We transitioned the leadership of our student organization to members of the next class on the football team, and I moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an engineer at Clark Construction Company. Dave Wozniak rolled up his sleeves and helped by mentoring the group that was left in charge. He acquired an intimate understanding of our program, and our third Lift For Life – in 2005 – set a new standard for participation, attendance, media coverage and fundraising.
The more we talked about Lift For Life, the deeper we got into the strategy. We had always had a grand vision for how big this could be. As college kids, it’s pretty easy to dream. Making dreams a reality takes some planning, though. And that’s where Dave excelled. We discussed the fact that kidney cancer was one of nearly 7,000 rare diseases and that all 30 million rare disease patients face similar challenges living in a world of isolation. The idea of creating an organization that could effectively use college football as a platform to make rare diseases a national priority seemed daunting. But the challenge was exciting, too.
In the midst of all this, my father’s cancer came back with a vengeance later that summer. It was difficult for me because I had just started my dream job and was trying to continue to grow our efforts to fund kidney cancer research, but we were running out of time. There were literally not enough hours in the day. The cancer eventually took my father, but it never beat him. What we learned from his fight inspired a movement that will change the world for people in similar situations.
All 30 million of them.
I had always said that this was bigger than him. When he passed away on Oct. 17, 2005, that became the new reality for everyone else who had joined us in our fight.
Over the course of the next year, Dave Wozniak and I spent most of our free time working together, researching, writing and editing a business plan that would evolve our organization and see us through the critical next steps. It had to be a coordinated effort. The brand had to be strong. This was no longer just a lifting competition. Uplifting Athletes was the name agreed upon for what our effort had become. Our mission was to align college football with rare diseases and elevate them as a national priority. The chapters would be run by current football student-athletes, and they would benefit rare disease causes relevant to their teams.
We developed an expansion strategy that was focused on a controlled growth starting with high-profile schools. Penn State became recognized as the first official chapter of Uplifting Athletes, and the group experienced another successful year. On the heels of another great Lift For Life event in State College in 2006, we published our business plan. The time had come to start recruiting new schools. I was still working full-time at Clark, and Dave had a full-time job in Philadelphia, so our sales calls were limited to phone, e-mail or weekends. It proved to be much more difficult than expected, but we made inroads with two of the biggest football programs in the country. Yet Penn State remained our lone chapter in 2007.
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