This story was originally published in Volume 4 of Amazing Magazine that you can download here.
When Grace McCunn was 10 years old, she passed out at school for the first time, seemingly for no reason. It’s a phone call that no parent ever wants to receive. Her mother, Mary Jane, raced to the school where she found Grace conscious and alert, and brought her to McFarland Clinic for evaluations. She said, “That night, they admitted her because they didn’t know what was happening. She was having chest pains at the time, so they kept her over night, but they just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.”
The McCunn’s, who have some experience spending time in a hospital with their older daughter Sarah, reached out to Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines and the neurologist who treated her with migraines. Grace got admitted and the doctors at Blank immediately diagnosed her with Chronic Daily Migraines, the same as her sister. What they determined that worked for Sarah, did not for Grace. Mary Jane said, “With Grace, they gave her this new medicine and within 30 minutes she felt great. What it did was put Grace to sleep immediately. When she woke up, she was a new person.”
Grace stayed on the 3rd floor at Blank. Hospital time can be slow time for patients, and kids in particular need activities to do. “5th floor is the kids toy room and when I went in there I was looking for some toys to play with, or puzzles to do, or just something to do with my parents. But I realized that nothing stood out to me because it was really for younger kids,” said Grace on her stay as a patient.
After two days at Blank Children’s Hospital, the McCunn’s returned home. Grace said, “I was happy to leave because it’s not very fun to be at a hospital for a couple of days. But when I was leaving, I had some emotions for the other patients who had to stay there. I just wanted to help out and make their stay a little bit better.”
A few days after they got home, Grace approached her parents with an age appropriate idea as a way to give back: start a lemonade stand to raise money. Why a lemonade stand? Grace said, “It’s easy. It’s fun. You can do it with friends. You get to make lemonade. You get to drink lemonade. You get to sell lemonade. It’s fun. Other people like lemonade.” This is how it began.
Her parents were supportive, especially considering Grace did all of the work. Mary Jane said, “She made her own homemade signs, went down to our corner, and started selling lemonade down there.” Mary Jane recalls that she went down to the corner every day for a week or more. The first lemonade stand raised just over $100, and forever changed Grace’s vision of philanthropy.
The McCunn’s brought the first check of $100 to Blank Children’s Hospital. As Grace’s parents were talking with Brenna Finnerty, Director of Development at Blank, Grace became interested in the donor bricks on the wall and inquired how to get one. For a 6th grader, a $100 at a lemonade stand is an incredible accomplishment, but pales in comparison to the donations that are indicated by the bricks on the wall. The first brick is worth $10,000.
Brenna, not wanting to minimize Grace’s accomplishments, tried to shift her attention to what she felt was a more manageable goal. Next to the donor wall is an electronic screen with a scrolling list of names of those who have donated more than $1,000. Grace recalls, “They kept moving me to a touchscreen that has your name on it. They were like ‘if you hit $1,000 you could get your name on it.’ But I was so focused on the brick, and I told them that I would be back for the brick.”
Grace had a more determined mindset. “When we got home, Grace started going back out to the corner. She made more signs. She was there every day,” said Mary Jane. When it started getting cold, Grace diversified. A family friend owned a local business and agreed that Grace could sell hot chocolate. “It was probably 30 degrees and Grace was out there selling hot chocolate,” said Mary Jane.
As Grace was building toward her first brick, the ideas on how to give didn’t stop. Grace held a toy drive during the holiday season, started a coin drive at the middle school with the help of her math teacher, and even donated her hair to Locks of Love. She got her first brick and became the youngest person to have a brick on the donor wall. Then one afternoon in June 2017, the next crazy idea occurred to them.
“Everything happened so fast. I think I said something to Grace and our friends that maybe we should do a 5k race,” recalls Mary Jane. They had no experience in this area, and no knowledge on how to do it. But once they determined a date based on the availability of Ada Hayden park, they committed themselves to the race and only had about 30 days to pull it together.
They gathered a team of friends who helped with some of the logistics of this event. One dabbled in graphic design and created their logo and flyers, another had connections on putting together a certified race based on USA Track & Field standards. Grace made rounds throughout the community and generated a lot of sponsors for the race. “Grace was so amazing. She was the one who went to all the businesses. She took flyers to them, told them what she was doing. She took pictures with them and it just evolved from there,” said Mary Jane.
After a month of preparations, the first annual Amazing Grace Lemonade Race was an overwhelming success. All those entry fee checks written to Blank Children’s Hospital also allowed Grace to upgrade her brick to the next color given to those who have donated more than $25,000.
In many ways, the acts of generosity are a byproduct of Grace’s personality. “Grace is very focused, very driven. She gets something in her mind and she just hounds on it. She’s persistent. She just keeps going until she fulfills that obligation,” said Mary Jane. Her parents, Mary Jane and Alan, are simply there to support her. Grace is the engine that keeps these charitable contributions going, and they are proud that she has put her focus, drive, and persistence into philanthropy.
As a middle school student, her parents are more there to act as a chauffeur to get Grace where she needs to be. Grace is the face of the race and approaches every business owner for donations. Leading up to this year’s event, she shared her story in an hour long interview on Mel in the Morning, 1430 KASI A.M. radio. She was downtown Ames during RAGBRAI, giving away lemonade, and had a booth at the Principal Charity Golf Classic in Des Moines to raise awareness to her cause.
Over the past two years, she has done numerous television and newspaper interviews that has put a spotlight on her work. In April 2018, Grace was recognized by Blank Children’s Hospital at their Shining Star, Young Philanthropist event. And this November, Grace will be honored as the 2018 Outstanding Youth in Philanthropy by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Brenna Finnerty and the team at Blank nominated her for this award.
There is nothing easy about putting on a 5k race, but many of the logistics were already established going into this year’s event with preparations starting nearly as soon as last year’s event ended. Mary Jane said, “Wherever Grace goes, people just know what she is doing, what it’s about, and why she is doing it. It’s not about Grace, it’s about the kids and making a difference.”
On July 28, 2018, 126 registered runners participated in the second annual Amazing Grace Lemonade Race. Iowa State University football and soccer athletes cheered on the participants during the race, while former ISU Cyclone basketball standouts, and current NBA players Georges Niang and Naz Mitrou-Long, ran the event. As a whole, the event raised just over $10,000 that will be donated to Blank Children’s Hospital, bringing Grace’s total contributions to date over $36,000.
When asked what she could buy for $10,000, she responded with “a couple houses.” It’s a refreshing perspective that demonstrates the weight of her contribution and the way that she perceives it. Grace is willing to spend her free time, her summer, to raise thousands of dollars to help children that she has never met, and she isn’t stopping.
Preparations for next year’s event are already underway. They are talking about adding a 10k to the event, and incorporating a children’s run as well. What is next on her list? Grace said, “Another toy drive. Another coin drive maybe. I don’t know. Something… just something. And more lemonade stands.”