A compromise bailed out Dance Marathon 2003 and its initial beneficiary

By Matt Donnelly
The Daily Northwestern
February 26, 2003

Teacher Jaime Madison helps seventh graders Patty Ayala, left, and Vanessa Valdivia complete a character lesson at Metro, run by the Midtown Educational Foundation

Angela Schneider/The Daily Northwestern

On a chilly night in early February, about 300 Dance Marathon participants took their seats in Ryan Family Auditorium, ready to learn the whats, wheres and hows of DM 2003 — but mostly to get themselves excited for the biggest annual undergraduate event at Northwestern.

Dancers had been working for months to raise the $750 each couple needed to participate. DM’s committee leaders came on stage and reminded the crowd to bring clean underwear, drink lots of water and don’t forget contact solution.

Then, DM’s emcees — the event’s high-energy hosts — coached dancers on where to find their “DM spirit.”

Midway through the pep talk, it came time to discuss DM 2003’s beneficiary, the Chicago Urban Youth Scholarship Fund.

“Now, I know there’s been some confusion about this year’s beneficiary, CUYSF,” said Jake Szymanski, a co-emcee.

It’s not Clean Underwear from Yesterday’s SAGA Fiasco, they joked. Or Caressing Under Your Sweaty Foot.

The audience laughed, and Szymanski and co-emcee Anna Staloch moved on to DM’s more important business, like the 2003 theme song.

Few in the audience got the whole joke. The “confusion” — DM’s weeks-long effort to settle on CUYSF as its primary beneficiary — was closely guarded by the group’s executive board and NU administrators.

But months later, and with the big event just a week away, DM 2003 may be remembered most for the three weeks during Fall Quarter when its executive board made a decision that nearly devastated one charity and changed the way DM will be run for years to come.


The full name of DM 2003’s beneficiary — the Chicago Urban Youth Scholarship Fund benefiting graduates of Midtown Educational Foundation’s College Orientation Program — is almost too much to fit on a collection can.

“It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue,” said Zack Hall, one of DM’s two co-chairpersons.

As Hall or his co-chairwoman, Emily Wessel, explain it, things weren’t supposed to be that complicated. The original beneficiary, Midtown Educational Foundation, or MEF, was easier to explain and pronounce. MEF operates two after-school educational facilities in Chicago — Metro, a center for girls, and Midtown, for boys.

Metro, 310 Peoria St., is located on two floors of a former 24,000-square-foot tile warehouse just a few few blocks beyond the neon blue and green lights of Greektown. When MEF moved into the building in 1995, it was still in the center of the city’s embattled West Side, but gentrification and gyro sandwiches forced the poor out. MEF serves 450 4th- through 12th-grade students each year.

MEF also is inspired by the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

On the outside, MEF is just a nondescript door on a shabby industrial building. But inside, it’s the mock-up of a high-end suburban daycare. Desks, cubby holes and coat racks are made of well-finished wood, and the carpeting is firm and clean. There are at least two dozen computers for students to use.

Phil Brach, who oversees both programs as MEF’s executive director, is proud of the facilities’ every detail. A short, sturdy man with glasses and brown hair, he’s been MEF’s lead fund-raiser for more than two years. Brach brings a small businessman’s approach to running MEF.

On a Thursday night in January, Brach is sitting in the back of one of Metro’s classrooms listening to teacher Jaime Madison lead a character class for a group of about 20 seventh-grade Hispanic girls. About 60 percent of the kids passing through MEF are Hispanic, another 30 percent are black and the remaining 10 percent are a mix of ethnicities.

All the seventh-graders at Midtown and Metro attend a 40-minute character class every week. In addition to going over the night’s other assignments — tonight, the girls learned about Internet search engines — Madison also has the students talking about the value of patience. She’s asked all the girls to write a paper about a time in the last month when they made the choice to stay calm rather than get angry.

It’s Brach’s job to convince people that all of this — the buildings, the computers, the character classes — helps kids get into college. MEF’s corporate donor’s list reads like a page from the Fortune 500: Prudential, Kraft, Walgreen’s.

Donations and grants gave MEF an operating budget of about $2.5 million in 2001. It’s enough to keep Metro and Midtown operating at full capacity but not enough to expand the way Brach would like. Specifically, he has in mind a new facility to benefit the underprivileged kids in the Waukegan and North Chicago area.


After an exhaustive several weeks leading up to and including DM 2002, Hall and Wessel came back to school with the full weight of next year’s DM on their shoulders. The pair had two weeks to narrow the field of more than 60 beneficiary applicants down to three for the executive board to vote on.

Both Hall and Wessel were executive board veterans — Hall was a PR co-chairman, Wessel a corporate co-chairwoman — and each had firm ideas about how to improve DM, starting with the charity selection process. For one, they decided they would visit each of the three finalists to make a more complete presentation to the board.

MEF already had a place at the top of Hall and Wessel’s pile, even before the selection process began. The charity had been a strong applicant for DM 2002 — it made it to the last round of selection — but fell short when the money went to Friends for Steven, a pediatric cancer charity. “We were strongly encouraged to reapply,” Brach said.

Hall and Wessel had been in on the 2002 discussion, so the grunt work of evaluating MEF was done before the pair started combing over this year’s charity facts and figures. The harder questions would come out when Hall and Wessel met with MEF administrators one-on-one: How strong were MEF’s affiliations with Catholicism? And more importantly, what aspects of MEF — like how it handles the hard-line stands on birth control and homosexuality — might make DM’s participants uncomfortable?

“We went over everything,” Brach said.

Said Wessel: “We knew they were a Catholic organization, so we had questions about some issues, which MEF totally answered.”

Like the church, Brach said, MEF teaches that birth control is wrong, but the topic only comes up during a specific talk with 11th-graders. However, students can chat confidentially about sex with a volunteer anytime.

Homosexuality, which the Catholic Church also opposes, has never come up, so Brach didn’t know how staff would address it.

Hall and Wessel also received a tour of the center’s newly completed chapel, a softly lit room complete with candle, altars and crucifix. Brach explained that the chapel only serves as a spiritual reminder to MEF participants, never a part of curriculum. If a student starts asking questions about Catholicism, Brach said the student’s parents are brought in on the discussion.

After the April 2002 visit, Hall and Wessel were confident MEF could serve as DM 2003’s beneficiary. They had asked their questions and gotten their answers — except one that would come back months later to disrupt DM and nearly throw MEF into financial crisis.

It was a question about the priest whose lighted painting hung above a kneeler on the chapel’s wall: St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.


The annual Activities Fair held in September at Norris University Center is a big day for DM. Thousands of freshman shuffle from table to table to collect pins, grab fliers and, most importantly, sign up for listservs. About 600 freshmen signed on to the 1,600-person DM listerv.

About three days after the fair, Hall and Wessel sent out the first mass e-mail to give dancers and committee members more information about sign-up dates and the beneficiary. To be thorough, they included a link to MEF’s Web site.

People on the listserv clicked over to MEF’s site, and their eyes caught what Hall, Wessel and two DM executive boards didn’t: a line at the bottom reading, “MEF is inspired by the social teachings of the Catholic Church and the Prelature of Opus Dei.” A pair of links took visitors from MEF’s site to Opus Dei’s Web site for the United States.

Founded in Spain in 1928, Opus Dei is a movement within Catholicism that “encourages Christians of all social classes to live consistently with their faith, in the middle of the ordinary circumstances of their lives, especially through the sanctification of their work.”

According to the movement’s critics, Opus Dei behaves like a cult when recruiting and retaining members.

“We have no theology of our own,” said Brian Finnerty, a spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States. “We emphasize working hard, obeying your parents and avoiding drugs and alcohol.”

Still, when the DM e-mail went out, participants had questions: Did DM know what Opus Dei was? And was DM’s executive board supporting its cause?

“We had never heard of Opus Dei,” Wessel said. But, she says, enough of DM’s participants had and were “concerned” that DM’s leaders take action.

Hall and Wessel won’t say how many e-mails they received, nor will executive board members say who among them was concerned about Opus Dei. But both Hall and Wessel say the groundswell was enough.

Just weeks before dancer registration was to begin, Hall and Wessel called together DM’s executive board, and the group leaders decided they had to drop MEF as a beneficiary.

“We thought we might not get the support from students we needed to make DM successful,” said Wessel, who had volunteered one night every week at Midtown over the summer. “Our job is to educate and unite the campus in philanthropy. If it’s students’ problem, it’s our problem.”

Hall and Wessel brought the executive board’s decision to their adviser and NU administrators. DM had promised MEF a lot of money — in 2002, it totaled $372,000 for Friends for Steven — and now board members wanted to take it back.

“We immediately contacted the major players in the university,” said Michele Capio, DM’s adviser in the Campus Activities Office. “Dance Marathon doesn’t stand separately from Northwestern. Everything they do has implications.”

For NU officials, DM’s decision was particularly difficult — many of MEF’s top donors have close ties to NU. Its former executive director is a Kellogg graduate, and two Kellogg professors serve on its board of directors.

“This was a very difficult situation, because there were a lot people important to Northwestern on both sides,” said William Banis, vice president for student affairs. “We wanted to find a solution that would satisfy both Dance Marathon as well as (MEF).”

While DM and NU decided what to do, Brach and MEF staffers were moving forward with plans to open a new center.

“We thought everything was moving along famously,” said Jim Palos, MEF’s former executive director.

Based on the anticipated income from DM’s donation, Brach had already spent more than $30,000 to update MEF’s accounting software, and now he was working with a donor to purchase property near Waukegan.

Days after turning down the space in Waukegan, Brach got a call from Palos: DM was backing out of its commitment to MEF.

Growing up one of nine kids, Palos was the first in his family to go to college, Columbia University, with a lot of help from Midtown. Palos, also a Kellogg grad and dedicated alumnus, had heard just a few days earlier from an old friend at NU, an assistant to University President Henry Bienen, that “difficulties were looming” with DM’s donation.

“(NU) thought I could help in the conversation,” Palos said. “It was a very delicate situation, and I had a foot in both camps.”


A few days after getting the call from Palos, Brach came to Norris to meet with DM’s executive board and make his pitch — again.

“We told (DM), ‘Let us introduce you to Opus Dei,'” Palos said. “But the decision had been made, and there was no room to negotiate.”

Brach said donors have turned down MEF in the past because of its religious affiliations, but never in its history had a group taken issue because MEF was a corporate work of Opus Dei.

For MEF, Brach said Opus Dei is a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

“We were totally caught off guard,” Hall said. “But the goal was to come up with a solution that would benefit both organizations without benefiting Opus Dei directly.”

Said Wessel: “We wanted to work with them — we had a verbal agreement.”

Hall came into the meeting with the idea of making MEF a secondary beneficiary that would receive a small percentage of the DM pot.

Brach had a better idea: Use the money to endow a scholarship that would pay high school tuition for MEF participants.

The executive board OK’d the plan, and Hall and Wessel mapped out the endowment in-house with the help of one of their secondary beneficiaries.

After recouping the weekend’s costs but before writing a check to the primary beneficiary, DM annually contributes 7.5 percent of its net funds to the Evanston Community Foundation, a privately operated organization that manages $1.7 million in local charity money.

ECF’s leaders set up an endowment that will help two MEF participants pay for the high school of their choice. If students don’t want to go to private or out-of-district high schools, DM’s scholarship will pay for top-of-the-line school accessories, like computers.

Depending on the endowment’s performance, the scholarship could be expanded and offered to more students each year. Based on ECF’s average return for the last three years, if DM raises $350,000, the CUYSF could expect to earn almost $25,000 next year. Brach estimates the average four-year scholarship to be about $5,000.

In the end, CUYSF satisfied everyone: DM got a beneficiary not directly affiliated with Opus Dei, and MEF got help sending its students to better high schools.

NU, DM and MEF were happy to put the mess behind them, but concerns still linger. For one, Banis said administrators will keep much closer on tabs on DM when it selects its beneficiary. And at MEF, staffers still wonder where it all went wrong.

“Hindsight is 20-20, and I still think this whole thing is overblown,” Brach said. “But part of me would be interested, after all this is over, to send an e-mail out to the dancers and ask them, ‘Would you have objected if the money had gone to the center?'”

© 2003 The Daily Northwestern

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Posted May 7, 2004