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Flipping for a cure

Over 1,000 attendees flocked to the Lawn for the 19th annual Pancakes for Parkinson's event

While many students and returning alumni spent Saturday morning preparing for game day tailgates and reunion events, others woke up early to flip pancakes for charity. Student volunteers capitalized on the hustle and bustle of the Young Alumni Reunion and the home football game against Duke — a big, close-to-home rival of the University — to put on the annual Pancakes for Parkinson's event, raising money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease. 

The 19th annual Pancakes for Parkinson’s event went from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and brought between 1,000 and 1,500 attendees and 300 volunteers to the South Lawn in solidarity for finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease. The Pancakes for Parkinson’s CIO was started in 2003 by Mary McNaught, a 2006 College alumna who wrote her University application essay about an idea she wanted to bring to Grounds — making pancakes on the Lawn to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research. McNaught’s vision as an ambitious University applicant has now transformed into the largest CIO currently operating at the University. 

Many chairs rely on the organization of the previous year’s event to prepare each year. However, since the pandemic led to the cancellation of the in-person event last year, fourth-year College student Molly Giles and fourth-year Education student Anna Ryan had their work cut out for them as the two co-chairs began leading the charge on planning in the early spring. Beginning in the first few weeks of school, the executive team met once every two to three weeks and held committee meetings where tasks could be delegated more specifically. Outside of these formal meetings, committees met individually, working to facilitate sponsorships, coordinate logistics and work on contacting students and recruiting volunteers to make the event a success. 

“We had an overall timeline that we made last spring of things that needed to get done before the event and each committee had its own timeline,” Giles said. “I learned a lot about managing various groups throughout being a co-chair and certainly learned a lot about leadership styles and approaches.”

The entire atmosphere of the event was celebratory and joyful, as volunteers and attendees honored a year’s worth of diligent preparation with good food and great company. Though the goal of the event was to raise additional funds for Parkinson’s disease research, the vast majority of funds come from donations made over the course of the year, and all activities at the event — including admission, picking up a coffee and ordering a pancake — were free, with the exception of buying a t-shirt. 

“Our highest year was 2018 with a total of $100,000, and we’re hoping to hit $50,000 this year,” said Kelly Wulf, fourth-year Batten student and fundraising chair. “In 2020, we obviously couldn’t have the event, but still managed to raise $20,000. We’ve been able to raise hundreds of thousands to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation over the past four years, which is pretty crazy, actually.”

The final amount fundraised will be released in the coming weeks as the teams finish tallying up all donations. 

The South Lawn courtyard was decked out with multicolored balloons and a big tent housing the pancake griddle stations surrounding a stage and table arrangements for guests. Short shifts of a cappella performers — including the First Year Players, No Tones, the Virginia Belles, the Hullabahoos, the Virginia Gentlemen and the Silhouettes — as well as local band Bull Moose Party filtered on and off of the stage in 20-minute intervals. Some groups wore matching, professional-looking black dresses and suits and sung traditional a cappella songs like “Show People” and others were decked out in costumes, wigs and sunglasses, belting Taylor Swift’s “Our Song.” 

“I just think it's cool to see students helping what is obviously for me a very personal cause,” a faculty member who recently lost his father to Parkinson’s said. “It's a beautiful day, and of course the pancakes are good. It's a great way to spend a Saturday morning."

More than just hosting a fun event to create community and offer some free food, many student volunteers were inspired to get involved in P4P because of personal connections to the cause. Nearly everyone working a station named someone close to them whom they had lost to Parkinson’s and expressed their hopes that organizations like Pancakes for Parkinson’s are able to help find a cure. 

“My great uncle has Parkinson's, so it's in my family history,” first-year College student Blair Belford said. “So hopefully I can help with funding research for a cure. I just think it seems like a really fun time, but at the same time, a really good group of people that want to actually do something important.”

Similarly to Belford, volunteers were committed to benefitting something greater than themselves in honor of friends or family members battling Parkinson’s, with many committee members having just joined the club this year after a lack of involvement last year due to COVID-19. 

“It’s nice that as 20-year-olds, we're putting on an event this big, and everyone's really committed, and everyone takes it seriously,” Wulf said. “It's just great to be here and to be involved and seeing Parkinson's patients or family members come, and it makes you feel really connected to the University and to other students in it.”

When asked about the impact of the pandemic on the event operations, Pancakes for Parkinson’s members and past attendees almost universally agreed that the event seemed very similar to its setup in the past. University COVID-19 regulations did not require masks for vaccinated individuals as the event was outdoors, but some volunteers and attendees chose to mask up based on personal comfort level. All cooks were gloved and the griddles were scraped and cleaned between the batches of pancakes. The ability to once again host an outdoor event for the whole community to gather allowed Pancakes for Parkinson’s to achieve its goals of raising money and garnering community awareness and support. 

“There are more people wearing masks and whatever they're comfortable with,” Wulf said. “Luckily, it's outdoors — it would be very problematic if it were indoors.”

Though many of the thousand or so attendees over the course of the day were students on their way to the game, there were plenty of Charlottesville residents and family members of Parkinson’s patients who came out just for the event. For some, this event serves as a special way to annually honor and celebrate the lives of their loved ones. 

The sense of community support was truly present at Pancakes for Parkinson’s — not everyone volunteering and attending had a personal connection to Parkinson’s, but many who did were especially touched by the advocacy of so many hardworking University students. One Charlottesville resident spoke of the tenacity of her sister, who recently passed away due to Parkinson’s, and how much it meant to her to see students involved in a disease that most often affects the elderly. 

“I've watched people with it who lost a lot of their mental capacities, lost their physical capacity, but one thing about my sister is she never gave up,” the resident said. “She went from a two-wheel bike to a three-wheel bike, and she went from yoga to yoga for Parkinson's, and she always had the spirit of the lion. And even though it’s so often an older disease, I love that I see young people doing this, raising awareness.”

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