Annie Marggraff on Starting a Sustainable Community Service Project

For Annie Marggraff, running is more than just an activity. A cross country athlete at Washington University, Annie views running as a way to build bridges to different communities, inspire strength in others and develop a framework to navigate life’s challenges. Because of how running has impacted her life, Annie sought to create a space for running to impact others. From this desire came Bear Cubs Running Team.

Bear Cubs Running Team is coordinated by Washington University varsity athletes as a free club for children on the autism spectrum. This fall, the club enters its second year and continues to help young autism-spectrum runners build self-confidence and discover a passion for exercise.

What inspired you to start Bear Cubs Running Team?
“I started running competitively when I was 10. Since I started so young, it has been a huge influence in shaping my life. I’ve made friends through running, but I also learned how to overcome things through running. My personal experience with running was my original inspiration for Bear Cubs Running Team.

In high school, I learned more about the challenges people on the autism spectrum face through my friend’s younger sister. She is high-functioning and loved running, however she didn’t have the ability to join her middle school’s track team because the experience was too overwhelming for her. So I talked to her mom and a couple other moms in their grade and we got some girls out on the track. This group is still meeting every Sunday, four years later. It was incredible to see how, even meeting for just an hour once a week, these girls were positively impacted by the experience.”

What happened when you started as a student at Washington University?
“When I came to Washington University, I discovered how hard it was to find time outside of school and practice for volunteering. I decided to start an initiative that served the St. Louis community while giving fellow varsity athletes an opportunity to volunteer. I reached out to a professor in Washington University’s Department of Psychology who focuses on autism studies and was connected to the autism community. He put us in touch with Sharon Moeller, the executive director of MO-FEAT, a state-wide organization of parents and professionals dedicated to educating families of those with autism. Sharon was really crucial in helping us spread the word and, with her help, we had about 20 families at our first practice in fall 2015.”

Annie Marggraff

What goals did you set for Bear Cubs?
“I always wanted the experience to be free for families. We’re able to keep our costs low by using Washington University’s track for practices. All of our coaches volunteer their time, so funding goes directly toward program costs.

I also wanted to give varsity athletes a way to give back to our St. Louis community. Many of the volunteer coaches came to Washington University from outside of St. Louis, so we believe that because we use St. Louis resources, it’s also our duty to give back. I love that the program gives varsity athletes the opportunity to break out of the “Wash U bubble.” I never imagined how many bridges would be created through this simple program.”

It’s hard to have an impact on the community without financial support. How did you brainstorm and decide to tackle the challenge of limited resources to make Bear Cubs possible?
“We started by creating a GoFundMe campaign and received about $1,200 by spreading the word primarily through friends and family.

We also researched and applied for every grant that applied to the work we wanted to do. Through the process, Bear Cubs received grants from United Way’s Student Grant Program, the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, and the Washington University Women’s Society.

I also reached out to the founder of Build-A-Bear, Maxine Clark for advice on fundraising for Bear Cubs. Before I sent Maxine an email, I talked to a family friend who was connected to her – it was comforting to have that connection before reaching out! Maxine was wonderful – she went above and beyond what I was hoping for. She’s a huge proponent of Washington University and women in leadership, so when she heard about Bear Cubs she decided to help fund the program.”

People are more generous with their time

What have you learned from running Bear Cubs?
“There’s no loss in sending an email. People are more generous with their time – and sometimes money – than you think!”

As a varsity athlete and full-time student, you have many different responsibilities taking up your time. How do you balance academics with running, all while managing Bear Cubs?
“My schedule is certainly packed with 17 credits of classes and research, 3-hour daily cross country practices, managing Bear Cubs, and a variety of other campus involvements. These commitments would be overwhelming if I wasn’t as excited about them all as I am. Every different organization or society or team I am part of offers an opportunity for growth, happiness, and service to others. That said, my free time is pretty limited and staying organized and on top of schoolwork is crucial. I’m the type of person who obsessively color coordinates their calendar to function efficiently!”

What is your vision for the future of Bear Cubs?
“In an ideal world, I would like to return to Washington University 20 years from now and see Bear Cubs thriving. I want it to spread to other colleges across the country. I’ve made a goal of helping three other schools set up their own Bear Cubs program before I graduate in May. I think it can spread, and I think it has the potential to make an impact nationally.”

What advice do you have for other young professionals interested in making an impact in their community?
“In my opinion, you do not need to have had any technical or “professional” experience to begin a program or impact your community. All you need is a bit of time, an identified passion, and the desire to share your passion with others. I don’t have an exact formula for creating a successful business or non-profit organization and I’m not sure one exists, but I know that having a passion and finding a group of people who are willing to help you spread that enthusiasm are key components for any young entrepreneur.”

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.