Inside the Purple Community 5k
Ashley Owen of the Van Andel Institute joins us this week to talk about the upcoming Purple Community 5k and the inspirational work of the Van Andel Institute. From cancer research to Parkinson’s studies, listen now to find out how you can help make a difference!
00:07 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m home! Well, come in. It’s Finance to Fitness time here at Consumers Credit Union. I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson. And today, it’s all about fitness, and a little bit of finance fundraising, too, with the “Fun” at capital F. Hi, everybody. Joining us today is Ashley Owen. Ashley, you’re wearing in purple today.
00:28 Ashley Owen: I am rocking a little bit of the purple.
00:30 LJJ: Ashley is our coordinator of all of the amazing things that Purple Community does for Van Andel Institute. And I’ll tell you what, you are one busy person.
00:41 AO: It’s never a dull moment at Van Andel Institute, and Purple Community has seen tremendous growth over the last couple of years and over 120 events a year. So, yeah, not ever bored.
00:54 LJJ: Now, one of those events Consumers Credit Union is so proud to partner with and that is our Purple Community 5K, and it’s powered by Consumers Credit Union. And I love this 5K because it just is … it’s all about community and neighborhood and health.
01:11 AO: It is, and it’s something that we started… This will be our fifth year, and we’ve loved partnering with Consumers Credit Union. It’s such an awesome fit for us with your mission and what we’re trying to accomplish, and being able to partner the last couple of years with the Mary Free Bed YMCA has been a huge enhancement to the event. And just seeing the community come together for such an amazing cause, it’s really inspiring and it’s just an awesome morning every year.
01:37 LJJ: So, here is what I would like everyone to really take note of right now. If you’re driving, if you’re getting that cup of coffee, if you’re just sitting down to get ready, have your notes, if you participate, 100% of the monies raised, 100% goes right back to Van Andel Institute. And I’ll tell you, the mission is incredible.
02:05 AO: Yeah. We are so fortunate. I’ve worked for a lot of different non-profit organizations, and personally, I’ve never worked for one where you can honestly say 100% of all the donations individuals give goes back into the programming, back into the research, back into the science education that’s happening at Van Andel Institute. And that’s all thanks to our incredibly generous founders, Jay and Betty Van Andel, that established an endowment that allows us to cover all of our operating costs every year, just pulling on the interest from that endowment. So, we’re very, very lucky to be able to tell our donors, “The dollar you give, the $1000 you give, all of those funds go right to the labs and the research.
02:49 LJJ: Tell us how Purple Community started, and where is the link to Van Andel Institute? Then we’re really gonna get into the science, because it’s an amazing facility.
03:01 AO: It is. And what’s really cool about the connection between Van Andel Institute and what Purple Community does is… This is about 10 years ago now. In 2009, a group of Granville High School students had an idea to do a game. They put together a Purple Community soccer game, and so it started with one game, one school, and it’s grown into over 120 events a year across West Michigan and beyond. We’re now in New York and Chicago, and really starting to expand our reach. And that’s just par for par with what Van Andel Institute is trying to do with our global reach of improving the lives of current and future generations with our research.
03:47 LJJ: You walk into Van Andel Institute, which is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it is world-renowned. And one of the, I think, most fascinating aspects is, if you ever get to tour or you want to tour, you literally can watch scientists in action behind the panels of… They’re working on solving critical issues about cancer, Parkinson’s. It’s just amazing.
04:17 AO: It really is incredible. And that’s one thing that I also feel so fortunate about, being able to be a part of this organization, whether it’s as a staff member, like I am, or if it was as a volunteer or an event host, or just to participate in something with Purple Community. It’s the fact that this research and these scientists are right here in West Michigan, and the funds that people work so hard to raise for our organization stay right here in West Michigan. And being able to connect with scientists, who are at the cutting edge of their fields, whether it’s epigenetics, Parkinson’s, metabolism, nutrition, cancer research, it’s inspiring to just walk through the halls and be able to say hello to someone who’s on their way to finding a better treatment or a cure potentially for some of these diseases. And it’s very humbling also to know that the work we’re doing is supporting these incredibly brilliant, dedicated scientists.
05:15 LJJ: What I found really interesting at some of the… You have a lot of lunch and learns that you can partake in. And what I found the most interesting was the collaboration that is happening not only at Van Andel but across the world, and also different universities in the United States locally, the partnerships that the hospitals have with Van Andel Institute and the scientists to really dig deep in seeing where is it that there can be that collaboration that makes a huge step forward, because you’re watching the life of, let’s say, a tumor or… And how that’s affecting other types of research going on around the world.
06:00 AO: It is really exciting. And that’s another unique thing about Van Andel Institute, is we aren’t bound by the same levels of red tape and bureaucracy that a lot of other institutes and research organizations might be because of the way they’re funded, so we’re very fortunate to be able to work quickly, and that’s one of our core values at our organization. Time is of the essence. People are waiting for treatments and cures now, and will be in the future, and there isn’t time to sit on our laurels and wait. Our scientists definitely work with a sense of urgency and want the community here to know that, but also around the world. And because of that sense of urgency and that ability to collaborate, we can work with just about any other research institute that’s willing to partner with us, and we have a lot of clinical trials that we’re doing with different institutes and organizations around the world, and very fortunate to be able to be a part of Stand Up To Cancer with our epigenetics dream team working really hard to find the newest, best treatments for different types of cancer. It’s just an incredibly fortunate position that we find ourselves in, to be able to conduct research on the level that we do.
07:15 LJJ: When you decide you’re gonna have a Purple event, do people come to you, are you setting them up? How can people get involved?
07:23 AO: It’s so easy, and that’s what I love about it. We have built this program, especially over the last few years, to make it accessible to anyone at any level, whether you’re a mom of a kid in school, and you’re passionate about raising funds for cancer research and wanna help put on a bake sale and raise a couple hundred bucks, or you’re a group of students who are maybe on the football team and you wanna make an impact on the community by doing a Purple game, that kind of stuff happens all the time across our communities up in Traverse City, Chippewa Valley. We’re teaming up with businesses a lot in our community. Like Tapistry Brewing is hosting a Hockey Fights Cancer game this weekend in Kalamazoo.
08:11 AO: The sky is the limit. The ideas are endless. We provide resources and tools to individuals who say, “Hey, I have an idea. I don’t know if it’s any good, but can I help raise money by doing this?” 99.9% of the time, yes, you can do it, we’ll help you, we’ll figure out the different tools and resources you might need. Like, do you need a registration website? Do you need fundraising pages for your participants? Do you need help finding locations? Do you need other tools and resources, media relations? Whatever it might be, we try to help individuals that have a passion for what we’re doing, be able to put that passion into action and have successful fundraising events. And for us, there is no limit, we will help you with a $100 fundraiser just as much as we’ll help you with a $100,000 fundraiser.
09:00 AO: We value the passion everyone else puts into this. Purple Community is our community, it’s everyone’s community. For us, it’s just being able to provide those support tools that people need to have the confidence to have an event and have it be successful. And it’s so easy because they just go to purplecommunity.org, and all the information is there. There’s tons of other events we’ve shared and posted, we have a blog, so there’s a lot of great resources for people to jump start and get some ideas if they’re not really sure where to start. And obviously, tons of our own signature events, like the Purple Community 5K, we partner with Consumers on. So, there’s a lot of great ways to get your feet wet by just coming to events we already have going on and getting some ideas.
09:43 LJJ: Now, the Purple 5K has really started to grow. You know what I love the most about this race is that it is neighborhood, it is community. Explain a little bit about the day.
09:55 AO: Yeah. We start with registration, around 6:30 or so in the morning, at Mary Free Bed YMCA, and packet pickup also begins about that same time.
10:06 LJJ: And the Mary Free Bed YMCA is in the Grand Rapids market, which is over at Kraft and Burton area.
10:14 AO: Yeah. And so that’s great, too, because that neighborhood, the Cascade community, has really gotten behind this event in a big way. We weren’t sure, kind of disrupting the neighborhood on a Saturday morning.
10:26 LJJ: You’re in the neighborhood.
10:28 AO: We’re running through the neighborhood, on Burton, off Burton. Everyone has just been so gracious and supportive in that community, and we’re really grateful for their flexibility and letting us bring this event to them. And so many of them either participate or they’re cheering us on along the course, coming out with their cup of coffee in the morning, saying hello to everyone, and cheering on our runners who are raising funds for cancer and Parkinson’s research, and it’s a really special morning. We start off about 7:45 with our program, and then 8 o’clock in the morning, we kick off the run and walk. And it is a timed event, which is awesome. It’s a couple of weeks before the River Bank run. And so if you’re kinda testing the waters, wanna see what your pace is looking like, how you’re feeling, we have a lot of runners participate in our event right before they do the River Bank run. And we give out all kinds of fun awards and prizes for our top finishers, as well as our fundraisers. And that’s a really unique component to this event, too, is it’s not just another 5K, but it’s an opportunity for people to again put their passion into something, and raise funds for cancer and Parkinson’s research.
11:37 AO: We give all kinds of fun prizes. Last year, we had an Echo Dot as one of our top prizes to give away. Our friends at B-93 have given us country concert tickets in the past. And we have all kinds of fun Purple merchandise that we give away. It’s just a really cool opportunity to get involved. And this year, we’re gonna have a post-race celebration. Some of our top fundraisers and sponsors will be invited to celebrate with us after the race. And it’s a nice quick event, 8 o’clock, you’re probably done by 9:00 or 9:30, depending on how fast or slow of a runner or a walker you might be. It’s very family-friendly as well.
12:13 LJJ: So, if I say I crossed at 10:30, that’s not good, is it?
12:17 AO: It just means you really took your time, you enjoyed the neighborhood, took in the sights. [laughter] And we probably were packed up, and the barricades were down. [laughter] There may or may not be an official finish line anymore set up. Yeah, it just means you really enjoyed your walk.
12:35 LJJ: I will say that it is really neat to go around the Caravelle Village neighborhood because there are families that are out cheering you on, and they actually set up water stations. It’s really cool.
12:46 AO: Yeah, it is. It’s really neat to see the neighbors get into it and get as excited about it as we are. And the members of the Y, too, they’re so gracious to let us take over their facility for a morning on a Saturday morning in April. They let us come in and use their facilities, which is great. We have amazing bathrooms. People have access to the Y afterwards as well, to be able to check it out. If you’re not a member, it’s a great opportunity to decide to become one.
13:15 LJJ: It’s an amazing facility. Wow.
13:17 AO: It really is. It is an incredible facility and very accessible. For us, it’s a great way to connect with both the YMCA community as well as the Cascade community.
13:30 LJJ: Absolutely. So, how did you get to doing what you’re doing, Ashley? What got you into the Purple Community?
13:38 AO: Wow, that is a good question. It kinda goes back to when I was in college. I went to Western Michigan University and…
13:44 LJJ: Go, Broncos!
13:45 AO: Yay! Go, Broncos! And I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I suddenly found myself having to decide that, as I had to declare a major, and…
13:56 LJJ: And away we go.
13:57 AO: And away we go. And realized that I loved communications. I had a ton of credits for that already, and so I moved into organizational communication, and from there, worked at some different non-profits, the American Red Cross for a few years. And moved to Chicago, worked for Catholic Charities for a few years there. And more recently, was with Gilda’s Club and LaughFest, and that really rekindled my passion for supporting cancer and Parkinson’s research. And we do a little bit of depression research as well, and have great partners, like Pine Rest, in the community. All of that has affected my life and my family in different ways. And so going from that organization, to be able to take 10, 12 years of experience in event management and fundraising, and help other people do successful events, and put those on, really just put it all into this perfect package for me of the next step in my career and really found my calling essentially when I got to Van Andel Institute and became part of Purple Community. It just was the perfect fit.
15:00 AO: It doesn’t even feel like work. I can’t call it work, or going to my job. It’s just going to my passion every day. I’m so fortunate to be able to work with such incredible event hosts and partners, like Consumers Credit Union, and help them realize what they’re passionate about and feel like they’ve accomplished something. And what can be like a very hopeless situation sometimes, if they have someone in their lives that’s been diagnosed with cancer, Parkinson’s, or lost a loved one, it can be a very lonely, hopeless feeling. And I think we give them, in some way, a little bit of control back and a little bit of a sense of hope by making them feel like they’re able to put on these fundraising events and raise some money for cancer research right here. It’s a very humbling opportunity, and I absolutely love this organization.
15:45 LJJ: Well, Ashley, we love working with you as well. And I can tell you, this podcast is specific to talking about finance to fitness, and how you really have to find that balance of feeling like you’re really making a difference and it really is a joy to hear you talk about that.
16:07 AO: Yeah. Well, thank you for having us and giving me an opportunity to share more about Purple Community, and for your continued partnership. It’s awesome.
16:14 LJJ: Anybody can walk or run. And I’ll tell you what, it is an absolute blast, and we’d love you to join us April 27th. And I’ll tell you, it’s a great precursor to the River Bank Run, which, that one, you can walk and run too, but this one is much more purple.
16:29 AO: A lot more purple.
16:32 LJJ: A lot more purple. Thank you so much, Ashley. And thank you for joining us today, Money, I’m Home, from Finance to Fitness. Thanks for tuning in.