We love charities that zig while most zag…here is one…
The Side-Out Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Fairfax, VA that harnesses the power of volleyball players to host Dig Pink® volleyball tournaments that raise money for critical research of late stage metastatic breast cancer – the least funded form of breast cancer scientific studies. In 2016, a total of 765 different high school, college and club teams from coast to coast contributed $1,138,337 to Side-Out’s directed clinical trials which take place at leading cancer institutions in the United States. This grassroots campaign raised more money in 2016 for the breast cancer cause than individual efforts staged by multi-billion dollar leagues like the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL. Two-time Olympic Beach Volleyball medalist April Ross, who lost her mother to breast cancer, is an advocate for the charity. Over the years, Side-Out has raised more than $12 million for research on the disease, has completed two successful clinical trials using Side-Out’s individualized treatment protocols and is currently in the midst of a third trial, it’s largest yet. Volleyball coaches across the country use the events as a team building experience that also reinforces the role sports can and should play in supporting athletes’ communities off the court. Most matches take place in the fall in conjunction with October’s designation as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For details check out https://side-out.org/
What’s the latest in the midst of a busy month? We caught up with Executive Director Rick Dunetz
October has been covered with Pink for Breast Cancer Awareness, how does Side Out differentiate itself from everyone else not just in October but year round?
The Side-Out Foundation stand out for several reasons. First and foremost is that the we are not just paying lip-service to the cause because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This is our whole reason for existence. While our events are called “Dig Pink®” and take place mostly in the fall around October, our impact goes way beyond awareness and wearing the color pink. We appreciate the awareness created by that but there is much more that needs to be accomplished and that’s where we fit in.
We are working with teams coast-to-coast to raise funds AND THEN directing those funds into critical research driven by our own cutting edge approach in the often ignored area of stage IV (metastatic) breast cancer. Today our self-funded research is treating real people living with stage IV. Research that is unlike any other with a stage IV focus and takes place year round. Research that has been recognized by the most important governing organizations in the areas of oncology and breast cancer for the results and promise our approach have shown in extending people’s lives. And it is funded solely by the sport of volleyball. We remain active year round through the Side-Out Foundation clinical trials that take place at eight well-known cancer hospitals and lab centers. We work year round providing support to our teams so they can build on their Dig Pink® tradition.
The efforts to raise large sums have been amazing. Do you ever worry about getting lost in the cancer charity shuffle?
Honestly, we try to concentrate on our mission and our communities; the volleyball and the breast cancer communities. We make personal connections through the student-athletes, the coaches, their family members who support the fundraising, and who in many cases, have been diagnosed with breast cancer or know someone who has. By doing that, we don’t get lost. We can show our supporters where their money is going and prove that it is making an impact. Our mission is specific and we just keep our head down and make sure that we honor our commitment to change the way that breast cancer is treated. Since we have already completed two clinical trials that have showed positive results, we can prove that we are making a difference. You don’t get lost in the shuffle when you are leading the race. And we are quite proud of the fact that last year alone, we raised more for the breast cancer cause than any of the major sports leagues did individually.
Volleyball has really resonated. Why do you think so?
The sport of volleyball is growing every year. It is now the number one sport played by high school girls in the US so of course those numbers alone are helpful to our effort. In this vibrant and growing community our players, coaches and parents are trying to find ways to make an impact on the world. To take lessons learned on the court beyond the court and into real life. Whether you are talking football or volleyball, all coaches know that sports can teach players how important it is to be part of a community and how rewarding it is to then give back through that community beyond just the playing of games. Side-Out’s origins came from the fact that I am a volleyball coach myself and lost my mother to breast cancer. I saw firsthand how much it meant to have my team rally around me and provide support to my family during the worst times. That experience showed me the strength of teams. With only 10-12 girls on a volleyball team, I think the sport also lends itself to a group being totally committed to a cause and really taking pride and ownership of a campaign like ours. It’s a big enough group that you feel like a team yet small enough that it’s easy to all row in one direction. I truly believe our sport can be a spark to inspire people and raise funds for this cause – and luckily, so do almost 1000 coaches in the United States who have their teams host Dig Pink events each year.
What has been the most pleasant surprise since the launch of the charity?
You cannot walk onto a volleyball court in the US and find an athlete that does not know what Dig Pink is. That is just amazing. But the athletes are what surprise us the most. We believe that when kids are given the opportunity to show their greatness, they will. Every gym I walk into during the month of October inspires me. The level of commitment to the cause, of helping others is simply astonishing. Every player, coach and parent reminds me why we do what we do. I can’t remember the last time I went to an event and didn’t have someone approach me to tell me about their personal loss to this awful disease – and thank me for trying to extend the lives of people suffering from late stage metastatic breast cancer.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Owning and operating our own clinical trial is a huge challenge. There aren’t many grassroots organizations like ours who both raise money and then take the responsibility themselves of driving a research effort. From getting trial sites to accruing patients to raising enough funds to afford the research. And if managing a clinical trial isn’t hard enough, explaining the research and the magnitude of our impact to our community is incredibly challenging as well. We are making massive strides in the area of precision medicine for people living with stage IV and we want the world to know and understand! Undertaking this added responsibility is a lot of work but it also means we can make sure we are maximizing the benefits of each dollar we raise.
How important is star power, like what you have with Olympian April Ross?
The coolest part about the volleyball community is that our celebrities are very accessible. Not only can we get a message out to our celebs, but they actually respond!
April and I share the experience of losing a mother to stage 4 breast cancer so reaching out to her made sense – and luckily for us, she wanted to help. I was even able to share with her the life-changing research that our sport is funding when she came to visit one of our research sites. April has been just amazing for us and a vital part of getting our message out there. There’s no doubt that having a two-time Olympic medal winner share our story has helped our profile. We have never asked April to do anything more than that with our community and she has been incredibly gracious even as she is pursuing yet another Olympic run.
The social side is so important to storytelling; how much value and effort have you seen there?
We use our social media in a variety of ways but the biggest use is to share content from our blog. We have developed hundreds of blogs that tell stories, provide knowledge, or share foundation news. Our social community has grown a lot since we started sharing our blog content. It’s also a terrific way for teams holding our Dig Pink events to show what they are doing and learn from each other
What’s the one message you hope gets through to all who come across Side Out?
We want everyone to know that stage IV breast cancer is the least supported, least recognized and least funded community in the breast cancer world. And we also want the volleyball community to know that the science that our sport is funding is changing the way that breast cancer is treated. We are helping real people right now and hope to make our research the standard level of care for the 150,000 people living with stage IV breast cancer in our country.