Flip for a Cure: Going Behind the Scenes at U.Va.’s Annual ‘Pancakes for Parkinson’s’

October 20, 2014

What does it take to make 10,000 pancakes? Try 60 10-pound bags of pancake batter, 3,250 individual packets of syrup, 30 pounds of blueberries, eight 72-ounce bags of chocolate chips, 100 gallons of orange juice, eight griddles and hundreds of student volunteers from across the University of Virginia.

Pancakes for Parkinson’s, an annual pancake breakfast held on the Lawn during U.Va Homecomings Weekend, has grown to become the largest student-run fundraising event at the University. It’s also the largest college-based fundraiser for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, raking in upwards of $60,000 in donations in past years and inspiring a national movement at other universities.

And, as many U.Va alumni would be unsurprised to learn, the massive cake-flippin’ event was founded and is fully organized by students. At the helm of this year’s event, to be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the south end of the Lawn, are fourth-year co-chairs Charlie Hill and Kylie Philbin, who lead a 35-student executive board that coordinates every aspect of organizing the event, from vying for corporate donations to transporting those 100 gallons of OJ.

“It’s been a crash course in team management,” said Hill, an economics major who has been flipping pancakes and raising awareness since his first year. “Our executive board draws from all different majors and schools across U.Va., and we’re pretty evenly split between second-, third- and fourth-years.”

The students apply to join the board during the spring and begin holding organizational meetings once school starts in the fall. Teams execute a massive letter-writing campaign to find sponsors, design T-shirts to sell up to the day of the event, rent and transport the griddles and other supplies needed to serve 6,000 people, and organize day-of events, from a capella group performances to booths and activities promoting Parkinson’s awareness.

At 4 a.m. on the morning of the event, Hill, Philbin and the core executive board members arrive on the Lawn to unload and set up griddles, tents and booths, and start mixing the pancake batter. They prepare coffee and donuts for the rest of the volunteers as they arrive to help set up, and usually by 7:30 a.m. they’re ready to rock and roll. “But there’s always something we forget,” Hill said.

“I’ll get up around 3 in the morning – though last year I stayed up for 24 hours. For the last two years, it’s been the most fun day I’ve had at college,” Hill said.

“It’s what you’ve been working for for months, and once the sun rises it turns into a really fun time. I think it makes it better that it’s during Homecomings and the football games; there’s just an energy of this place on game day, and we like to tap into that.”

The first wave of volunteers from other U.Va. student groups who have signed up to sponsor a grill usually show up around 8:30 to 8:45, and after the grills have been fired up and last-minute coffee runs have been made, pancakes are ready to serve at 9 a.m. Last year, volunteers even got a little help from U.Va. alumna Katie Couric, who stopped by and joined in the pancake flipping.

By mid-morning, the Lawn is packed with thousands of members of the University community who have flocked to the heart of the University to huddle around hot griddles, piling high plates of warm flapjacks smeared with butter and slopped with syrup before they head out to grab their seats in Scott Stadium.

The event has a personal meaning for Hill, whose grandmother battled Parkinson’s disease. “It’s pretty incredible to have the support of my whole family on Pancakes for Parkinson’s, and during the event we really work to educate people on the Parkinson’s awareness side,” he said. 

“Part of our executive board is a Parkinson’s awareness team, and during the morning they’re handing out brochures about the Fox Foundation, running a handprint wall and a booth with education about the disease. We also invite people in the community with Parkinson’s to the event, and they have a lot of interest in coming.”

All of the proceeds from the event benefit the Fox Foundation, the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s disease research. The U.Va. Pancakes for Parkinson’s team’s official fundraising goal this year is $65,000; they hope to raise $10,000 from donations during the day of the event, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorships, online donations, support from the U.Va. community and a letter-writing campaign.

“Last year we were invited to the Annual Team Fox MVP Awards Dinner, and my co-chair and I flew up and got to meet Michael,” Hill said. “A lot of other top fundraisers from around the country came, too, and it was really powerful – they give you updates on research and let you know exactly where your money is going.”

Pancakes for Parkinson’s was founded in 2004 by U.Va. student Mary McNaught, fulfilling a promise she made in her admission essay to start a pancake-based fundraising event if she was accepted. In 2007, Team Fox, the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s community fundraising program, adopted “Pancakes” as one of its signature events. Since then, successful Pancakes events have been started on dozens of college campuses and in communities around the country.

“As much fun as it is, anytime you have a moment and can really see a glimpse of the effect you’re making, it makes it all worth it,” Hill said.

This year, Pancakes for Parkinson’s is partnering with Relay For Life at UVA, a group that backs cancer research, to form U.Va. Homecomings’ first official FIGHT + FLIP philanthropy weekend.

Media Contact

Dan Heuchert

Assistant Director of University News and Chief Copy Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications