Chicago in Spotlight As Host of Eclectic V Foundation Benefit

It’s the first time the Windy City has hosted the annual V Foundation fundraising gala to benefit cancer research and awareness. But don’t expect an old-school, staid black-tie dinner with a $400,000 Bentley auctioned off. The show creators have a different idea.

Photo via ESPN Coach Jimmy Valvano (right) with Dereck Whittenburg, starting guard of the legendary North Carolina State 1983 NCAA Championship team. The pep rally drew more than 6,000 people to cheer the "Cardiac Pack" who made the Final Four series and defeated Hakeem Alajuwon's Houston Cougars (54-52) when Whittenburg's 30-foot airball received a big alley-oop dunk by Lorenzo Charles at the buzzer. It's considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

This past June about 10 members of Chicago’s “Friends of V” committee huddled at a long conference table at One Wacker Drive. It was a regular weekly meetup to pull together some shape — something concrete — for the V Foundation’s annual gala scheduled for Sept. 26, a shrinking 106 days away as member Scott MacDonald, a financial advisor with UBS, nervously counted down. On the speaker phone is Dave Williams, former senior vice president of Whirlpool, weighing in about logistics, the budget and the theme along with five or six other organizers plugged in across the country. At this stage, they still hadn’t nailed a name. 

But the group was gelled by larger ideas, namely to initiate a creative, groundbreaking approach to fundraising and awareness about cancer, the second-most-common cause of death impacting a sobering one of every four people. In a 2012 report the American Cancer Society projects 580,350 Americans will die of the disease this year. Those numbers don’t rattle the V Foundation, a torchbearer for cancer research: They've raised more than $100 million since ESPN commentator and former 1983 North Carolina State NCAA champions coach Jimmy Valvano founded its mission in 1993 before succumbing at the tender age of 46. 

You need money to drive research. But “competing for money gets very, very old,” said Jade Thamasucharit, one of the core team members and director of corporate development with Envisionit Media as his day gig. They wanted to open hearts first. “The dollars will come later,” says a confident Thamasucharit. Still, they need bodies, people immersed in a long-term commitment. The Chicago Chapter has a five-year grass-roots road map to recruit advocates, everyday people — especially millennials and underrepresented groups — to get onboard and engage their communities, their families and friends, as participants in the process of finding a cure. There was some push back, as always when you attempt to square the circle. But how to get there?

The planners wanted to bring art and tech, interactivity elements, with this new face and spirit of fundraising. This event is a start. By August they had the show on its feet, with a name that says it all, and a theme. The UNDEFEATED: A Gala Benefiting Whatever It Takes to Beat Cancer. 

Plan on a full night to laugh, think and cry, as the charismatic Valvano said in his moving 1993 ESPY Award speech. The team lined up the perfect venue with Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, one of the most beautiful event spaces in Chicago. Emmy-nominated Chef Rick Bayless, the sizzle behind award-winning restaurants Frontera Grill and Toplobampo, joins with Chef Eric LeVine to prepare “Laugh Think & Cry” dishes in the Moongate Space. Elliot From, an international speed painter who zapped out a Blackhawks logo at Mach-5 speed, will perform.  (Watch closely!) Danny Chaimson’s Gold Coast All Stars band will rock the floor, plus a DJ will mix it up. A 60-foot screen will project artwork and a silent auction for Monterey, Calif., wine country tours, Disney Cruise packages, and original art from the Zhou brothers will be unveiled before the final bows.

This gala marks the third year that Chicago-based Crown Imports, distributor of Corona beer, has partnered with the V Foundation, and this unconventional take on charity events “is exactly in Valvano’s wheelhouse,” said Jim Ryan, senior vice president corporate affairs. “It’s exactly what he would want us to experience. He’s still our coach, and he’s driving us to find a cure.”

“We are going to beat this thing,” echoes Thamasucharit. “Whether it’s in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime, I want to be a part of that.”

The UNDEFEATED: An Unconventional Gala at the Zhou B Art Center, Thursday, Sept. 26, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tickets $250. Register at UNDEFEATED Chicago.

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