Medicine staff raise awareness for childhood cancer in Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Every year, an event called the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge reminds local residents what the holidays are all about: giving back and helping others. During the challenge, local groups compete to raise funds to support nonprofit organizations by decorating a Christmas tree in a theme that represents the cause they are supporting.

During a two-week voting period, members of the community are invited to cast votes for their favorite tree. Each tree is eligible to win one of 10 prizes ranging from $500 to $5,000 based on votes. The prizes are awarded to the nonprofit organizations represented by the winning trees.

This is the Department of Medicine Research Administration (DOMRA) staff’s second year entering the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge representing the childhood cancer foundation, Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF).

The story behind DOMRA’s association with ALSF is tied to the group's work as research administration staff and their support of Duke researchers who work persistently on ALSF’s cause.

Gerard Blobe, MD, PhD, professor of medicine (Medical Oncology) and pharmacology and cancer biology, has worked with and has been funded by ALSF for childhood cancer research since 2012. In 2015, Dr. Blobe received the Innovation Grant from the foundation. In recent years, ALSF has contributed more than $500,000 to the Duke oncologist’s research.

As research administrators, DOMRA staff member Catherine Lavenburg said it is only natural to support ALSF because of their growing relationship with the foundation. The staff's duties supported Blobe’s research by assisting with grant submissions for childhood cancer.

The first year the DOMRA team entered the Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge, it was a last-minute entry. From there, Cheryl Alles, senior grants and contracts administrator, took the lead on coordinating activities for the challenge.

Lora Griffiths, senior grants and contracts administrator, and Lydia Maher, research administrator, supported her by writing inquiry emails to DOMRA staff to gather a team together for the challenge. They also sent emails with personal stories from children connected with ALSF to encourage staff members to vote for the DOMRA tree.

Last year, the tree was decorated with real lemons, plastic yellow lemonade cups, warm yellow-orange Christmas lights, and more than 20 photos of children who have been diagnosed with cancer. It took the staff members about three hours to decorate the tree.

As staff members learned more about the children, Griffiths realized how much of an impact their stories had on staff.

“We started realizing that they weren’t all survivors. They didn’t all make it,” said Griffiths. “I think it started really affecting people a little bit more …. It gave a whole new meaning to the season.”

Lavenburg, an effort grants & contracts administrator, said that ALSF is another example of why the staff members love what they do.

“I think it also connects you to the work that we do through DOMRA, which is supporting research to help kids like that,” said Lavenburg. “It puts the face to the illnesses that our researchers are fighting ... It helps to remind us why we do what we do here.”

According to I Care I Cure Childhood Cancer Foundation, only 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s funding is dedicated to researching childhood cancer. Ninety-six percent of NCI funding is spent on researching adult cancers.

Childhood cancer is also the No. 1 leading cause of death in children under the age of 15 in the United States.

The DOMRA staff plan to use the similar decorations for their tree this year, but they are adding an even bigger component. The staff created a lemonade stand from scratch using recycled electrical cord wheels and decorated it in yellow. The lemonade stand will serve lemonade during the kick-off party and public tree viewing at 7 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the American Tobacco Campus in downtown Durham.

The DOMRA staff’s tree for ALSF will be entered in the contest as tree No. 33.

Voting will open on Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. and will end on Friday, Dec. 16 at 11:59 p.m.

To vote for DOMRA’s tree online, visit Voters can also vote for their favorite tree through their tablet, computers, and phones.

You are allowed and encouraged to vote daily. Each device you vote from counts as a separate vote.

To vote from your mobile phone, text TREE 33 to 25827 (include a space between TREE and 33). You can also download WRAL's app, “Out & About,” from the Google Play Store or App Store to vote on mobile devices.

If you would like to share the challenge on your social media, visit the Facebook page Triangle Christmas Tree Challenge – Alex’s Lemonade Stand or the twitter page, @AlexsXmasTree.

This story was written by Tia Mitchell, communications intern for the Department of Medicine.