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Fraternity pledges $20 million to Huntsman Cancer Institute for research and treatment

SALT LAKE CITY — As a little girl with stage four kidney cancer, Olivia Dubell remembers the fear of approaching the large, looming buildings of the Huntsman Cancer Institute for chemotherapy and radiation.

"But the first thing I saw when I walked in every time was that friendly nurse's face," Dubell, now a junior at the University of Utah, recalls. "They made it so comfortable, and they just made me feel so loved up here."

It was the care she received at Huntsman that inspired her, in part, to pursue a career in nursing — and it was part of why, more than a decade later, she threw herself into fundraising efforts for the foundation.

A woman carries a rose Sigma Chi International Fraternity pledges $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Cancer Institute during a ceremony in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019.
A woman carries a rose Sigma Chi International Fraternity pledges $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Cancer Institute during a ceremony in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

More than 600 members of the Sigma Chi fraternity gathered at the Huntsman Cancer Institute on the University of Utah campus Friday night to announce a pledge of $20 million. The funds will go toward women's cancer research and treatment at the Institute and its new Kathryn F. Kirk Center for Comprehensive Cancer Care and Women’s Cancers.

Dubell and her sister in the Chi Omega sorority, Brook VanBrocklin, were there too. Dubell and VanBrocklin, whose parents are researchers for the institute, had assisted with the fundraising that made the University of Utah Sigma Chi chapter one of three to raise more than $100,000 for the Huntsman foundation.

"Everyone knows someone with cancer. It affects everyone," VanBrocklin said. "Going through chemo, it's not fun. And if we can find some way to make that better, that's awesome."

Sigma Chi has been raising money for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation since 2005, but "has really embraced (the foundation) as their philanthropic partner" since 2013, according to Jacqueline Brakey, director of integrated communications for the foundation. Over the past five years, the 240 Sigma Chi chapters around North America have raised $10 million for the foundation.

Several hundred gather as Sigma Chi International Fraternity pledges $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Cancer Institute during a ceremony in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Several hundred gather as Sigma Chi International Fraternity pledges $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Cancer Institute during a ceremony in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It's expected that the fraternity will fulfill its $20 million pledge within five to seven years, Brakey said, if it stays on track with its rate of fundraising. Sigma Chi raised more than $2.3 million for Huntsman Cancer Institute in the 2018-19 school year alone.

"It makes me feel so hopeful about the future for cancer patients, and it makes me feel very inspired that these Sigma Chi youth are so committed and engaged in something with such an important purpose," said Mary Beckerle, chief executive officer of the Huntsman Cancer Institute. "It will make a major, major difference in both research and the (women's center)."

The University of Utah chapter was one of three that were recognized Friday for raising at least $100,000 for the institute, the other two being chapters from Oregon State University and Georgia Southern University.

"It's an elephant," said Harry Martin, a member of the University of Utah Sigma Chi chapter and an intern at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, of raising the $100,000 donation. "You take it one bite at a time."

Fundraising for the Utah chapter included Derby Days, an annual tradition hosted by Sigma Chi where teams of fraternity members and sorority sisters compete in a weeklong game.

"It's a ton of little things that all add up," Martin said. "It's everyone coming together."

David Huntsman steps to the podium after Tommy Geddings, Sigma Chi International Fraternity grand consul, announced that Sigma Chi International Fraternity is pledging $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Ca
David Huntsman steps to the podium after Tommy Geddings, Sigma Chi International Fraternity grand consul, announced that Sigma Chi International Fraternity is pledging $20 million dedicated to women’s cancer research, treatment and wellness at Huntsman Cancer Institute during a ceremony in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Joe Banks, a member of the Oregon State University chapter, said his chapter's fundraisers included their own Derby Days and candygrams for Valentine's Day. They also received a donation of more than $60,000 from a Sigma Chi alumni.

One of the brothers in the Oregon State chapter lost both his mother and his grandmother in the same week to cancer this year, Banks said. Banks said his own grandmother passed away from cancer as well.

"It means a lot to me," Banks said.

Andrew Luna, a member of the chapter at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, describes himself as "one of the few lucky people" who has never lost an immediate family member to cancer. But he remembers watching his childhood best friend lose his mother to cancer when he was 12 years old.

"Seeing him go through that at a young age and just trying to be there for him, my heart really hurt for him," Luna said. "I just knew there wasn't anything I could do for him besides just be there for him. … I think it just comes down to gratitude for me, trying to give back for something I've never had to deal with."

Eleven chapters, including Cal Poly Pomona, were recognized for raising at least $50,000. Thirty-seven others, including Southern Utah University and Utah State University, raised at least $20,000.

The fraternity has adopted the goal of fellow Sigma Chi brother Jon Huntsman, the founder of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation: to eradicate the disease. Banners outside Friday's event declared the Sigma Chi brothers inside members of "the generation to end cancer."

"To me, that is just incredible when those college men can raise those kinds of funds," said Tommy Geddings, grand consul of Sigma Chi. "It makes me so proud that Sigma Chi is determined to see Jon Huntsman's vision through."

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly described Jacqueline Brakey as director of integrated communications for the Huntsman Cancer Institute instead of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation.