From MDA fundraiser to MDA Executive Director: Sarah Coleman reflects on an unexpected career

Sarah’s late father, Bob Madden

When I was a junior in high school, my father was diagnosed with ALS. At the time, I didn’t know what it was or what it meant, and Icould hardly imagine that I would make a career working for an organization whose mission is to find treatments and cures for ALS and other related muscle-debilitating diseases. All I knew was that my father was sick and that I wanted to help.

While I was away at college at the University of Illinois, my family became involved with MDA when they participated in the predecessor to today’s Muscle Walk, the Great Walk. Their fundraising efforts inspired me to organize a small event in Champaign, IL during my senior year of college that raised a little more than $10,000 for ALS research for the Champaign District office of MDA.

Six months later I started my career at MDA. In college, I majored in Sports, Tourism and Recreational Management and took courses in public relations and communications, but I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would do after graduation. I knew I was good at organizing events, and I was familiar with MDA through my fundraising efforts. So I left my resume at the local office and soon got a call to interview for a role as a Fundraising Coordinator in the Chicago District office. I wasn’t necessarily looking to go into nonprofit development and management, but the stars aligned for me. It was a chance to give back to an organization that was helping people like my dad; people who were living with devastating illnesses.

Fast forward a few years, and, unbelievably, I’ll be celebrating my golden anniversary this fall (12 years at MDA on October 12, 2016). In my time with the organization, I’ve worked in various roles, but have spent the majority of my time serving as Executive Director of the Chicago Office. In this role, I oversee our fundraising initiatives and work together with our FSCC team, various community organizations and local partners and sponsors to build and maintain relationships and increase the overall presence of MDA in the Chicago area. I also manage a team of talented and dedicated fundraisers who fuel our mission to help MDA families live longer and grow stronger.

The Toast to Life gala committee

MDA is a big part of my life outside work, as well. My family is very active in raising funds for MDA and awareness in the Chicago ALS community. In 2007, we held our first “Toast to Life” event. It started small and was modeled on the hap

py hour I had done in college. That first year, it was an informal affair, held at a local pub. We had 125 people attend and raised $14,000. In the years that followed, we moved to bigger and fancier venues, got more sophisticated with the catering and program, and developed an event committee to help us secure sponsors and celebrity emcees. In the 10 years my family has been hosting a “Toast to Life,” we’ve gone from happy hour to gala – and grossed more than $884,000 for ALS research. Now, you can find “Toast to Life” events across the country. We are so proud of what we started and so glad to have the full support and backing of MDA.

Sadly, my dad passed away three months after our first event, on May 22, 2007. He was 51 years old and had battled ALS for just over eight years. I was just 25 when he died, and every day I am both grateful that we had so much time with him after diagnosis and sad to think about all that he’s missed in the nine years since. Certainly he’d be delighted to see what the event has become. And he’d be proud of all we continue to do to advance ALS research.

Sarah ran the 2015 Chicago Marathon as part of MDA Team Momentum

In 2015, my brother convinced me to join MDA Team Momentum to run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Team Momentum gives you the opportunity to dedicate your participation in an endurance race – a marathon or half-marathon – to the fight against muscle-debilitating diseases. My brother had run as a part of Team Momentum with my cousin in 2014 and wanted to expand the team for his second go. We roped in several cousins and friends and formed our team, Miles for Madden, named in honor of our father. During training, I dedicated my miles each week to a different person I’ve met through MDA fighting muscle disease. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. In the end our team raised more than $16,000 together. And, we’re gearing up to run again in October.

Some people have asked me why I have stayed so long with one organization and there is so much that keeps me at MDA year after year. First off, I love our families and sponsors. We become such a big part of so many families’ journeys. They believe in us, they rely on us and they trust us to help them live their best lives, no matter what diseases they are facing. What we do on a daily basis matters to our families, and that makes our work very rewarding to me. In addition, working with our sponsors, drawing in new supporters, seeing them grow in their relationship with MDA, and giving them an outlet to give back and make a difference is one of my favorite parts of my job.

Every day at work is different. And there is no end to the wonderful people I meet and work with, everyone from executives and fire fighters to daycare center workers and employees of retail and restaurant chains. Simply put, I’m never bored.

I also truly treasure my coworkers. It makes such a difference when you work with people that you get along with and care about. The Chicago team is one of the greatest crews around, and I am so fortunate to work with them every day.

On both a personal and professional level, MDA has given me so much: a fantastic career, the chance to grow and expand a fundraising event, the opportunity to meet great friends who have been by my side through challenges and triumphs over the years at MDA and the privilege to honor my dad by continuing to work toward a cure. I may not have been able to predict where my career would take me when I first dropped off my resume at my local MDA office, but I’m so glad I went along for the ride.