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At 10th annual CreateAthon, VCU students spend spring break providing pro bono marketing help to Richmond nonprofits

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Volunteer mentor Taya Jarman, communications director for the Virginia Department of Health – Office of Family Health Services, brainstorms with VCU students working on behalf of the nonprofit Veterans and Athletes United. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Over the past 24 hours, a team of Virginia Commonwealth University students have overhauled the branding of Richmond nonprofit Sprite’s HERO, which manages a program that sends therapy dogs to schools and libraries to provide children who are learning to read with a nonjudgmental listening audience.

The team of VCU students, who had been awake and working the entire time, are presenting to the leaders of Sprite’s HERO a new proposed logo, a t-shirt design (with a new slogan: “Four paws for a cause”), and a fully revamped website. One of Sprite’s HERO’s therapy dogs, Zeke, is watching, as well.

One part of the proposed new website would be called “Meet the Four Legged Team” and would feature profiles of the group’s certified therapy dogs, says team leader Erlene Sam-Peal, a senior in the Department of Theatre in the School of Arts.

“The profiles would introduce people to the dogs,” Sam-Peal said. “It’d be like, ‘Hi, I’m Zeke and I like cheese.’ People are going to be like, ‘Oh, that’s so cute, I want to meet him and I want to volunteer.’”

Lauren Berger, a senior in the Department of Communication Arts, presents her team's CreateAthon work to officials with Sprite's HERO. (Photo by Brian McNeill)
Lauren Berger, a senior in the Department of Communication Arts, presents her team's CreateAthon work to officials with Sprite's HERO. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Sprite’s HERO was one of eight Richmond-area nonprofits selected to take part in this year’s CreateAthon at VCU, a 24-hour, work-around-the-clock creative blitz during which VCU student teams provide nonprofit marketing services on a pro bono basis.

The event, which took place over spring break, marked the 10th anniversary of VCU’s CreateAthon, a program of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Over the past decade, 769 volunteers at CreateAthon at VCU have provided 95 local nonprofit groups with 18,456 hours of work worth an estimated $1.75 million.

“A lot has changed over 10 years as we've learned how to improve the program,” said Peyton Rowe, executive director of CreateAthon and an associate professor of design and creative advertising in the Robertson School. “We offer even more opportunities for students to be involved not just as team leaders and team volunteers but as part of the production team that makes the event happen. For the past three years, we've added nonprofit orientation workshops to help the nonprofits understand the process better.”

“I hope we continue to grow and learn how to improve the program for both the students and the nonprofit recipients and can serve 100 more nonprofits,” she added. “One of the Robertson School's top fundraising goals is to create an endowment for CreateAthon at VCU. We want to be able to provide this service at no cost to Richmond nonprofits for many years to come.”

Devin Coleman, communications coordinator for the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, checks out a poster created for his organization by VCU students while Matt Grizzle, a senior creative advertising major in the Robertson School, explains the design. (Photo by Brian McNeill)
Devin Coleman, communications coordinator for the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, checks out a poster created for his organization by VCU students while Matt Grizzle, a senior creative advertising major in the Robertson School, explains the design. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Along with Sprite’s HERO, this year’s cohort of nonprofit organizations included Chrysalis InstituteDancing Classrooms Greater Richmond, the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, the Virginia Center for Inclusive CommunitiesQuill Theatre, the READ Center and Veterans and Athletes United.

Devin Coleman, communications coordinator for the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, which aims to protect and advocate for Virginians with disabilities, said he was impressed with the students’ work, which included a logo redesign, business cards, a poster, a new tagline (“Where rights are protected”) and a new website design.

“I can’t believe you guys did all this in 24 hours,” Coleman told the team that worked on the disAbility Law Center of Virginia brand.

“They definitely went above and beyond for us. I was thinking they’d produce maybe two things, but they ended up making five,” he said. “Definitely would recommend this experience to anyone. Any [nonprofit organization] would be thrilled to be accepted into this program.”

Russell, the dog of Peyton Rowe, executive director of CreateAthon and an associate professor of design and creative advertising in the Robertson School, visited with teams of students throughout CreateAthon. (Photo by Brian McNeill)
Russell, the dog of Peyton Rowe, executive director of CreateAthon and an associate professor of design and creative advertising in the Robertson School, visited with teams of students throughout CreateAthon. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Throughout the event, the teams were cheered on by other VCU students who posted frequently on CreateAthon’s social media, with many posts on Twitter and Facebook written in the voice of Russell, Rowe’s dog that wandered from room to room during the event,  sometimes with a GoPro attached to his back.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, for example, “Russell” tweeted, “I think you guys are doing a great job! You guys are paw-tastic! #CreateNrva”

At 9 p.m., he wrote, “An un-pup-ular opinion: I think someone should have shared their pizza with me. I am being a good boy. I deserve pizza. #CreateNrva”

And at 3 a.m., “The humans have become odd. They say words with no meaning. Send coffee please! #CreateNrva”

For many of the students, CreateAthon represents a great opportunity to gain valuable experience with providing marketing and graphic design services to a client, while also engaging with and serving the Richmond community.

“I wanted to participate because my friend had done CreateAthon before and he recommended that I try it out,” said Lauren Berger, a senior in the Department of Communication Arts, who worked on Sprite’s HERO. “[I wanted] just to push myself and see what kind of skills I have in a group setting, to kind of collaborate with others and also to help nonprofits out at the same time. I thought it’d be really cool to get portfolio work for myself and also to help a nonprofit in the community.”

A key part of CreateAthon’s success was the team of volunteer mentors from the Richmond region’s public relations and marketing profession.

Zeke, along with Jeanne McNeil, Chris Miller and David Sams of Sprite's HERO, listen as VCU students present their pro bono marketing work during CreateAthon. (Photo by Brian McNeill)
Zeke, along with Jeanne McNeil, Chris Miller and David Sams of Sprite's HERO, listen as VCU students present their pro bono marketing work during CreateAthon. (Photo by Brian McNeill)

Taya Jarman, communications director for the Virginia Department of Health – Office of Family Health Services, volunteered as a mentor through the Richmond chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.

“It’s important that we participate and that we give back to the community and guide the students,” Jarman said. “And it’s important that they hear real voices in the community, so it’s not just conceptual, big-picture thinking. But we can actually drive them when they start going off track, and saying, ‘Well, from our experience, in the industry, here’s what might work a little better,’ or, ‘Here’s some tips or tricks that you could use.’ We can really ground this experience in real-life work by helping to guide them through this process.”

Officials with the nonprofits that took part in this year’s CreateAthon said the VCU students provided them with excellent work that they likely would not have otherwise been able to afford.

“This is huge for us,” said Chris Miller, founder of Sprite’s HERO. “We have no paid staff and we have zero budget. So having their creativity and their knowledge and their expertise, and having them be willing to give up their spring break for this, it’s huge. And it’s just simply not something we could do ourselves.”

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