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Grandson's cancer diagnosis inspired fundraising passion

Sondra Rose has become a super-fundraiser for the

Sondra Rose has become a super-fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, hosting luncheons at which she raffles off gift certificates she has collected from generous business owners. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Eighty-one-year-old Sondra Rose, all 5-foot-3 of her, comes bounding down Laurelton Avenue from the Long Beach boardwalk, where she has just power-walked a couple of miles from her nearby apartment on a chilly Saturday morning in late summer.

"What's my secret?" she asks, without being questioned. "This."

She pulls opens her jacket, Superman-like, to reveal a T-shirt with the words "PASSION" emblazoned across the front.

"That's it!" she exclaims. "Passion. I believe in what I do!"

Whether through passion, grit, a sense of responsibility and adventure — or all of the above — what Rose has done in the past decade is super-impressive: A retired English teacher, Rose reinvented herself into a lean, mean fundraising machine on Long Island. Since 2008, she has raised more than $500,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society — all of it through individual donations and most of it by way of fundraising events that she organizes.

And that's only part of her transformation.

This diminutive dynamo raises money through the society's Team in Training program in which participants complete marathons and long-distance bike rides and hikes as the focal point of their fundraising.

All of which Rose has done — and continues to do. On Sept. 15, just two months shy of her 82nd birthday, she completed yet another long-distance fundraising event: A 25-mile bike ride, part of the North Shore Century, a cycling event outside Chicago.

Not bad for someone who "was always the last one chosen for the punch ball team," she says, referring to a variation of baseball played on city streets when she was growing up.

Late to the athletic game

While she may not have been good at sports as a child, Rose, who grew up in Far Rockaway, was a good student. She got undergraduate and master's degrees at Brooklyn College, and she became an English teacher in New York City. In June 1961, the bookworm married a varsity athlete: Marvin Rose, who stands an entire foot taller than Sondra, played basketball at City College. But she remained physically inactive well into adulthood. After their son was born in 1966, she weighed 222 pounds. Now, she proudly said, she's 135.

Her metamorphosis from sedentary to svelte, occurred gradually. In 1983, after a bout of sciatica, her doctor recommended swimming. Rose, who by then lived in Cedarhurst, went to the Olympic-size Echo Park pool in West Hempstead. "I worked up from one lap to 36," she said.

In the 1990s, after she and Marvin had gone on several bike trips in Europe, she added bicycling to her exercise regimen, along with daily swims and regular walks.

"I was on the road to good health, after a late start," she said. (Rose later expanded her exercise menu to include resistance training and chair yoga).

Things changed dramatically in 2008, when her grandson was diagnosed with Stage III non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. 

"That ignited something in her," said Marvin, who is 82. "She felt duty-bound to raise money to help fight the disease." (The Long Beach couple have two grown children and four grandchildren.)

Sondra Rose called several organizations and was eventually referred to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. Launched in 1988, it is largely credited with pioneering the concept of the charity endurance-training program. The idea is that instead of simply writing a check, an individual raises money while training for a personal fitness goal — typically a marathon, triathlon, bike ride or hike — with fellow members of TNT, as it’s called. The funds raised go to support the society's mission to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma and to improve the quality of life of patients and their families. 

Rose was encouraged to participate in the 2009 Disney World Half Marathon as part of the Island's Team in Training. "They told me I had to maintain a 16-minute mile," she said. "I didn't even know what that meant."

What it meant was a very brisk walk, for 13.1 miles. The race was held in January 2009, when Rose's grandson was going through treatment.

"When it got tough in the half marathon, I started thinking that he was going through his marathon and now I was going through mine," she recalled. "I was finishing no matter what." She did, in about 3 1/2 hours.

Since then, Rose has walked 19 more half marathons. She has also completed 11 hikes, including one up and down part of the Grand Canyon; three 25-mile bike rides; and the 2011 and 2015 New York City Marathons, which she also power-walked.

The second marathon produced a viral moment, when Marvin was captured on video giving his wife — one of the last to complete the 2015 marathon — a kiss at the finish line.

How they raise money

Participation in TNT requires a minimum fundraising contribution of about $2,400. "Most of our participants raise what they need to raise, based on that minimum goal," explained Jennifer Taggart, senior campaign manager for Team in Training's Long Island Chapter, based in Melville. "Occasionally, we'll have a standout person who raises $20,000 or $30,000, and they usually do that once."

Rose, by contrast, has been a Team in Training participant for a decade — and averages about $50,000 per year, all through individual donations.

"Year after year, she performs at a level that typically makes her the top fundraiser for our chapter," Taggart said.

Rose has won numerous awards for her fundraising, including being named the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Woman of the Year in 2011.

She started the usual way: By asking her friends and family to donate. But Rose raises the fundraising bar by going beyond her own network by hosting events — particularly luncheons — at private homes on Long Island and in and around Del Ray Beach, Florida, where the Roses have a winter home.

A Sondra Rose lunch is a combination of good networking and good eating: A friend or neighbor — or a friend of a friend — will volunteer their home for the event. Mailings go out to that person's contacts, each of whom is invited to donate $40 to the cause for the privilege of enjoying a delicious lunch (prepared by Sondra with Marvin's help). A typical lunch consists of poached salmon, noodle salad and Sondra's specialty, a crustless spinach pie, plus bread pudding for dessert. At the luncheons, held about once every two months, Rose usually addresses the group, followed by a speaker — typically, a local author.

At the end, Sondra holds a raffle for the gift certificates she has collected. "Whenever Marvin and I go to eat, I ask the manager of the restaurant if they'll consider donating a gift certificate for our raffle," she said. "I tell them why we're doing this, and most say ‘yes.’ ”

That's not surprising to Taggart. "How can someone say ‘No I'm not going to give you $50 or a gift certificate for your charity’ when this 81-year-old woman is going to spend three hours on a bike?"

Which is what she did on Sept. 15. Rose flew to Chicago for the 25-mile ride, part of a multidistance cycling event. As is often the case, she was the oldest participant, and in this event, she was the only one from New York. "The people could not have been nicer," she said. "It was fantastic. I'm so proud of myself."

So is her husband. "I'm not only proud," Marvin said, "but awed. The whole family is."

That would include her grandson, now 15 and cancer free.

"I'm trying to help others achieve that same result," Rose said. "There was a treatment for my grandson, and I want to see treatments for all the other people who are battling this. And that's why I'm passionate!"

Fundraise like Sondra

Sondra Rose, who has raised more than a half-million dollars in individual donations for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, offers these tips on the art of asking for money.

  • Don't let rejection scare you off. "Not everyone is going to want to give," Rose said. "Don't take it personally." Hannah d’Entremont, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Fundraising Professionals agrees. "Professionals understand that it's going to happen," she said. "But don't let fear of rejection keep you from asking."
  • Don't rely on friends and family for all your support. "Ask them once for money," Rose said. "The next time ask them for ideas and connections."
  • Using social is good, being social is better. "Sites like GoFundMe can be effective for certain initiatives," d'Entremont said. "But nothing beats face-to-face connection." The rule of thumb among professionals, she said, is "use social media to build awareness, but the ‘ask’ should be face to face."
  • Show that you care about your cause. Don't forget why you're doing it. Whether you're raising money for your church or your grandkid's youth soccer team or to fight a disease, Rose said, "keep believing in what you're doing." That last one, d'Entremont said, may be the most important tip. "When you're passionate about your fundraising initiative, that passion is going to come across in what you're doing. Other people are going to pick up on that and catch on to your cause."
— John Hanc

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