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Game changer: VCU is embarking on the largest, most comprehensive fundraising campaign in its history

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Virginia Commonwealth University has launched the public phase of the $750 million Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history.

The campaign will impact every aspect of the university: students, alumni, faculty and staff, patients, caregivers, researchers, schools, libraries, centers and institutes, athletics and the community. VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., announced the campaign’s fundraising target at an event Thursday night at the James Branch Cabell Library.

Our faculty, staff, students, patients, community partners and everyone who crosses paths with VCU will benefit.

“The Make It Real Campaign will transform VCU and help us continue to shape lives in Richmond and beyond,” Rao said. “Our faculty, staff, students, patients, community partners and everyone who crosses paths with VCU will benefit. Our translational research mission will continue to advance the human experience. Our facilities will meet the needs and match the talents of our people. Our world-class patient care will help more people live longer, healthier lives. We are a global university, and the impact of this campaign will be global.”

The public phase of the campaign follows a silent period, which began July 1, 2012. VCU has raised $439.7 million since that soft opening. The campaign counts all funds raised through June 30, 2020. Because the Make It Real Campaign for VCU is a comprehensive fundraising initiative, every school and unit within the university has established a goal for the campaign. Donors can contribute to the campaign with a gift to these individual units or to VCU as a whole.

“The university plays a vital role in our city and region, serving a broad range of students, patients and citizens,” said John Luke, rector of the VCU Board of Visitors. “This campaign provides an opportunity for all of us to support something at VCU, whatever our interests or passions may be.”

Gifts to the campaign support critical initiatives that promise to become points of distinction for VCU long into the future. In particular, the campaign will fuel growth in three primary areas — people, innovations and environments.

 

People

Jorga Janek.
Jorga Janek.

Funds raised through the campaign will attract, support and retain the finest students and faculty through scholarships, professorships and endowed chairs. Money from the campaign also will provide students with purposeful, hands-on learning and living experiences, and faculty with support for startup research ideas.

The campaign will support people-focused projects such as CAMP TALK, a partnership between VCU Medical Center’s Audiology Department and the VCU School of Education that was founded in 2014.

Jorga Janek was 2 years old when she began to lose her hearing. Now 8, she is completely deaf.

CAMP TALK has proved to be a refuge for her. The camp is a one-week summer program for pediatric audiology patients and their families that emphasizes developing and building speech by providing language-based enrichment activities, including music, art, cooking and reading.

“Jorga blossoms when she is here,” said Rie Janek, Jorga’s mother. “She sees children who are just like her. She really comes out of her shell.”

Jorga’ s transformation would not be possible without the MCV Hospital Auxiliary, a group of community volunteers that provides support to VCU patients, visitors and staff through service and fundraising. This year, the group raised about $303,000 through hospital gift shop sales and special events to fund 53 employee-led projects, including $6,700 for Camp TALK.

Alison King, auditory therapist for the Department of Audiology at VCU Medical Center, and Christine Eubanks, Ph.D., department director, developed the camp.

“The camp helps children develop social, emotional and communication skills,” King said. “That is absolutely essential for their development. Without the grant from the hospital auxiliary, the camp would not be possible.”

Ten children attended the first camp, with 29 participating this year. Most wear high-power hearing aids or have cochlear implants. They not only learn listening and communication skills but also have the opportunity to meet local police officers and their canine partners, enjoy musical performances and learn dribbling techniques from VCU basketball players. 

The camp, staffed by audiologists, students from the School of Education and volunteers, also provides resources for parents in the areas of childhood hearing loss, auditory-verbal techniques and language development.

“When you have a child with hearing loss, sometimes you can feel isolated,” Rie Janek said. “But here, we know we are not alone. There’s a tremendous amount of comfort in that.”

 

Innovations

David Gewirtz, Ph.D., and M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D.
David Gewirtz, Ph.D., and M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D.

The campaign also will help create new interdisciplinary partnerships and centers of excellence to offer students and faculty the right environments for meaningful research and learning experiences that will expand the university’s ability to solve complex local and global challenges through inquiry and discovery — challenges like the toxicity and painful side effects of chemotherapeutic drugs.

In 2013, David Gewirtz, Ph.D., a member of Massey Cancer Center’s developmental therapeutics research team, recruited M. Imad Damaj, Ph.D., a researcher in cancer prevention and control with extensive experience in the uses and effects of nicotine, as his research partner to tackle this problem.

Together they decided to test nicotine receptors in the central nervous system as potential agents for the suppression of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, a combination of numbness, tingling and burning sensations as well as discomfort from otherwise routine contact common for cancer patients undergoing treatment.

Using data produced in Damaj’s laboratory, Gewirtz and Damaj developed a proposal for funding from Massey’s Pilot Research Grant Program to support their efforts.

The pilot program provides startup dollars for researchers to gather initial data to support innovative research initiatives. As part of Massey’s commitment to encourage collaboration in cancer research, the pilot program requires any project to involve at least two independent investigators from different research disciplines.

Gewirtz and Damaj’s proposal earned them an award of $50,000 to produce the initial data they needed to apply for a research project grant from the National Institutes of Health. 

This year, they received an NIH grant of $1.7 million to continue their efforts.

“The pilot project grant did more than just fund our preliminary research,” Damaj said. “It allowed us to connect with many clinicians who treat patients with this side effect every day and work with them to figure out how we could develop our data and translate it into possible treatment trials.”

Since 2012, philanthropic and state funds have been the primary sources of funding for Massey’s Pilot Research Grant Program. In that time, more than $1.7 million has been awarded to fund 42 projects. That investment has generated more than $16 million in external grant funding for the cancer center.

As a member and former chairman of Massey Cancer Center’s Community Advisory Board, Ted Chandler has witnessed firsthand the center’s dedication to groundbreaking research and is passionate about doing his part to help. 

He established the Chandler Family Research Fund in 2011 with an initial pledge of $50,000 to support the Pilot Research Grant Program.

“Like almost every family, mine has been impacted by the scourge of cancer,” Chandler said. “Knowing that my gift could catalyze Massey’s next great breakthrough is very important to us. We do a little bit and the researchers do the rest.”

 

Environments

Through funds raised during the campaign, VCU will provide world-class facilities, equipment and materials to expand the university’s research capacity. In addition, the campaign will increase the impact and sustainability of VCU’s community partnerships and its resources in education, health and workforce development. The work to improve physical environments can manifest itself in surprising but meaningful ways, such as by improving overlooked details as simple as the chairs students use when hitting the books.

This year, more than 2 million students, faculty and community members will visit the James Branch Cabell Library in the heart of the Monroe Park Campus. Thousands more use the MCV Campus study spaces at Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences. With that amount of traffic, wear and tear of the library’s furniture is constant. Replacing chairs is, almost literally, a daily need.

Taylor Calicchia.
Taylor Calicchia.

The Cabell Library Undergraduate Advisory Committee hopes to answer that need with the Misfit Chair Project. VCU’s first student-run, student-centric, web-based crowdfunding effort aims to raise $10,000 to replace 52 worn-down chairs in the James Branch Cabell Library with new, ergonomic task chairs.

The undergraduate committee, which advises library leadership on student priorities and needs, has playfully designed the project to resemble the process of adopting a pet — the pet, in this case, any one of Cabell’s tired “misfit chairs.” Those who support the cause with a gift of $25 or more are invited to take a photo with their “adopted” misfit chair to share on social media.

Earlier this year, Cabell underwent a renovation that included five floors of new or updated spaces and 1,500 new seats for students, but many chairs purchased as long ago as the 1970s remain in use in older sections of the building.

Mack Edmondson.
Mack Edmondson.

CLUAC members Taylor Calicchia and Mack Edmondson noticed these worn-out chairs and recognized an opportunity for students to get involved and pitched the Misfit Chairs Project to CLUAC.

“We hope that engaging students in getting new chairs will help everyone feel welcome,” said Edmondson, a fourth-year criminal justice student. “Comfort is critical to help students study efficiently for extended periods of time.”

Although the Misfit Chairs Project emphasizes student involvement, anyone can participate.

“The VCU community extends beyond campus and is full of people who feel connected to the university and want to support its students,” said Calicchia, a fourth-year biology student. “I would feel so encouraged knowing that [nonstudent donors] wanted to support a cause that is so important to my peers and me.”

Gifts made to support the Misfit Chairs Project count toward VCU Libraries’ Seat-a-Student Fund and are eligible to be matched as part of the $1 million challenge grant extended to VCU Libraries by the Cabell Foundation. The challenge grant calls on VCU Libraries to raise $1 million in gifts and pledges by June 30, 2017. When that goal is reached, the foundation will commit $1 million.

 

The ripple effect

Through their generosity, donors will provide important resources to the VCU community and spur critical gains that will resound far beyond the borders of campus.

“The ultimate goal of the Make It Real Campaign for VCU is to change lives,” said Marti K.S. Heil, vice president for development and alumni relations at VCU. “Not just those of students and faculty, but those of the countless others touched by our graduates and educators in this community and farther afield. But we know that not everybody has the capacity to make a life-changing gift. This campaign also aims to build our donor base by engaging more alumni and new friends, so that every gift, no matter the size, will help us bring about these powerful transformations.”

For more information about the Make It Real Campaign for VCU, visit campaign.vcu.edu.

Brelyn Powell, Janet Showalter and Tom Gresham contributed to this story.

The ultimate goal of the Make It Real Campaign for VCU is to change lives.