This article originally appeared in YC’s Winter 2020 Challenger Newsletter. On International Women’s Day, we’re publishing this wonderful piece again to celebrate a wonderful woman!
The life-changing nature of Youth Challenge is hard to explain. In our recent interview, YC founder Mary Sue Tanis, who is retiring after 44 years leading the nonprofit organization, reflected on the unlikely alchemy that led to its creation and still fuels it today.
In the early 1970s, Mary Sue majored in recreational therapy at the University of Colorado. She also loved swimming and often shared a pool lane with Greg, a Vietnam veteran who had arms but no legs. When one of Mary Sue’s professors asked her if she would like to assist people like Greg, she said yes in part because her brother had also recently served in Vietnam: “I just pictured that Greg could have been my big brother.”
Upon returning to Cleveland, Mary Sue noticed a Fairview Women’s Club swim program that included children with disabilities. She called the woman in charge to join and quickly learned “it was nothing but fun.” So in 1976, through a combination of her tenacity, resourcefulness, and vision, Mary Sue spearheaded her own program through the Fairview Park Recreation Department.
Remarkably, Mary Sue went door-to-door on foot and on bike in her parents’ community to find participants and volunteers! Soon the recruits started meeting twice a week in the local park. Mary Sue noted: “I used to train teen volunteers in my parents’ basement in the beginning . . . we were very much like the little engine that could.” She laughed when recalling that some neighbors questioned the project (and her can-do attitude).
By 1983, Mary Sue’s little-nonprofit-that-could incorporated. It had no vehicles and not much of a headquarters, but that didn’t stop the number of participants, volunteers, supporters, and activities from growing. As she stated, the “kids” kept coming, trying new things, making new friends, and gaining self-confidence. But make no mistake—the work was invigorating but also exhausting. Mary Sue admits that during the first decade, “I had a hard time separating where my life began and Youth Challenge ended.” Gradually, she realized she needed to find capable people who “would own Youth Challenge with me.”
An important side note about the early years of YC involves its absence of a physical building. Apart from avoiding overhead, Mary Sue always wanted to “project” the participants and volunteers into public spaces like parks to raise awareness of disability and access issues. In the process, participants gained social interaction beyond their families and teen volunteers “bridged the gap” with the public by explaining to curious onlookers what they were doing. Mary Sue noted: “We were sowing the seeds of inclusion and we didn’t even know it.”
Over the past few decades, Mary Sue’s desire to find people who “would own Youth Challenge with me” has been fulfilled with abundance. “There’s a saying,” she explained, that “‘we measure success by the ones who come back.’” Today, Youth Challenge is a large family with a beautiful facility and many staff and Board members who were involved at YC in their own youth. Mary Sue beamed with pride when she said “they passed it on and it has multiplied . . . we’re into two to three generations with some families.” For that reason, “the future of Youth Challenge is nothing but bright” and the goal remains the same: “Create that big smile and vibrant atmosphere that makes them want to come back . . . there’s no reason these kids can’t touch the stars.”
March 2020 was disappointing for lots of reasons. At YC, one of a series of bummers was having to cancel Brats, Beer & Brackets – one of our favorite events of year! And while things aren’t quite back to normal, we’re so excited that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is BACK and so is Brats, Beer & Brackets!
Join us for an online Zoom auction of NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament teams on March 16 at 7 pm. There is no cost to attend, but registration is required at www.YouthChallengeSports.com/Brackets.
If you’d like to get in on the beer and brat action (YOU SHOULD!!) you can order a delectable brat meal – with potato salad and gruyere mac n’ cheese included, plus two beers, for just $30. Score two meals and a six-pack for $60. All food is crafted by the wonderful folks at Italian Creations! All meals can be home delivered for free in Cuyahoga and eastern Lorain County, or you can pick up your meal at YC in Westlake. Don’t miss this! Catering orders will only be accepted through March 9. ORDER NOW at www.YouthChallengeSports.com/Brackets.
How’s It Going to Work?
In the past, we’ve packed the gym at YC and had a rousing live auction for team pairings. While we won’t be packed in the gym, we’ll still be able to gather on Zoom and host a live auction with Auctioneer Sherry Truhlar (read her bio).
The auction for NCAA Men’s Basketball teams will be hosted via a Zoom meeting where all attendees will be able to see each other. Live auction bids will be taken via the chat function during the meeting. Guests are encouraged to pool their money to bid on their favorite (and potentially more expensive) teams. In order to participate, you must be registered with the event. Don’t worry, we’ll cover all of the logistics before the auction begins.
Food delivery is available to Cuyahoga County and eastern Lorain County, or you can pick up your meal at YC in Westlake. Delivery and pickup will be available prior to the event and purchasers will receive details via email. Must be 21 or older to order.
Event Timeline–Tuesday, March 16:
Event Add-Ons & Sideboards
The live auction is just a part of your chance to WIN BIG during the tournament. Starting now, you can purchase 50/50 sideboard tickets or join YC’s NEW bracket bet. You do not need to be attending the live event to participate.
There’s something for every basketball lover during this event! For any questions, please contact Carolyn Palmer, YC’s Communications & Events Manager at 440.892.1001 x 13 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A message from CEO Chris Garr this Thanksgiving:
Friends of Youth Challenge,
I’m filled with gratitude for 2020. This isn’t an odd statement. It’s like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree… When something is imperfect, it can serve as a rallying point to come together and show love and humility. We cannot be more appreciative of the love you’ve shown during this crazy year. 2020 wasn’t what we’ve expected, but I am truly grateful for the way that we’ve been able to adapt at Youth Challenge – and none of this would be possible without you.
To every volunteer who provided a helping hand at a program, every donor who gave their hard-earned dollars to help us keep our programs moving, every staff member who took all of our program changes in stride, and to every person who has supported us along the way – I cannot express how thankful I am for you. YC is better because of our community. And you are a part of that loving community.
As we all celebrate today – I’m sure in a new way for many – know that the young people of Youth Challenge are filled with gratitude, too, for the opportunity to stay socially connected – even during the most isolating points of this year. Thank you for creating moments of joy for our participants and volunteers!
Simply, I’m grateful to have you in YC’s little corner of the universe.
Chief Executive Office
Transitioning to a new kind of golf outing is a perfect metaphor for 2020. What will work and what won’t? When can we hold an event? How can we hold an event? How can we have fun and be safe at the same time? How risky is fundraising? Who will be on board with a totally new take on a traditional event?
These questions weren’t only part of CEO Chris Garr’s welcome message to our Topgolf attendees last week, they were also the questions Team YC had been pondering for months. Now, as we reflect on our Topgolf Outing held on November 5, we’re so grateful for the outpouring of support for Youth Challenge!
For more than three decades, golfers have been coming together to support Youth Challenge at a traditional golf outing held in the summer. As our event schedule changed in 2020, we looked forward to a new kind of golf outing held in November. To avoid searching for a lost ball in the snow, YC set out to forge a new partnership with Topgolf in Independence, an open-air, heated driving range.
On November 5, more than 250 people arrived at Topgolf ready to swing a club in support of Youth Challenge. The fun of Topgolf is that the game can be exciting for the most experienced golfer or the novice picking up a club for the first time. Groups of six people, socially distant in bays, enjoyed delicious food, drinks, and amazing weather for November in Ohio. Our guests found the sweet spot of having a blast while staying safe!
During the outing, attendees competed in the TopContender Tournament – each vying for the prize! Nick Smedira was our TopContender, winning a three-month platinum membership to Topgolf. CooksonPeirce, one of our wonderful bay sponsors, took home $100 each as our winning bay!
In all, YC’s first-ever Topgolf Outing raised more than $23,000 for Youth Challenge! We are so grateful to everyone who attended and gave to the event – especially our sponsors.
We can’t forget our fabulous “golf committee.” Together, Tom McIntyre, Steve Nock, and John Petersen gave their time, talent, and treasure to help ensure this event was a smashing success. We couldn’t have done this without them!
If you missed out this year, don’t worry, we’ll be back at Topgolf next fall for another swinging good time! You can sign up for YC’s e-newsletter to get notified of upcoming YC events by clicking here.