Inspired by mom’s illness, student raises thousands for MS research

Feb. 17, 2011

by Stacy Forster

Becky Hall is comfortable with the reputation she's gaining around campus.

Becky Hall, a UW-Madison undergraduate and member of the UW-Madison Cycling Team, rides her bike on a stationary trainer in her apartment. In 2010, Hall raised more than $23,000 to support multiple sclerosis research by taking pledges for completing cycling trips. Hall’s mother, Jane Hall, was diagnosed with MS in 2000.

Photo: Bryce Richter

"I'll be walking to class and people will say, 'Are you that MS girl?'" Hall says. "Yes, I am. It's a good girl to be."

Hall, a sophomore majoring in political science, has earned her visibility, stopping in dozens of lectures across the UW-Madison campus, to talk about her quest to raise money for research on multiple sclerosis (MS).

Last year, she set a goal to raise $10,000, and ultimately brought in nearly $23,000. This year, she's aiming for $50,000.

Her efforts are off to a strong start. As a winner of a Pepsi Refresh grant last year, Hall has the chance to earn a $1,000 bonus by getting as many people as she can to "like" a special Facebook page for her cause from 9:15 a.m.-5:15 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 17. The Nitty Gritty restaurant is also sponsoring a fundraising night Thursday and will donate 20 percent of its sales from 5-9 p.m.

Raising money to help fight MS, a chronic autoimmune disease of the central nervous system, has always been personal for Hall. For a decade, her family has participated in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Wisconsin chapter's annual bike ride as a way to support her mother, Jane Hall, who was diagnosed with MS in 2000.

Hall credits her parents and three brothers with helping her achieve her fundraising goal; they kept her efforts going when she left for a volunteer project in Africa last summer.

"I'm very proud of her ... she never gives up, and she has a way of getting people to listen to what she has to say," Jane Hall says. "If she's bound and determined to do something, she'll do it until she succeeds."

“This is how I deal with everything My mom is doing unbelievably well for having MS for 11 years now, but MS is impossible to predict. ... Doing this is how I fight.”

Becky Hall

But after Charlie Siewert, a close family friend gained through the annual MS bike ride, died in early 2010, Hall says she was scared. Siewert had been sick for just four years longer than her mom, and Hall feared the worst, despite the fact that her mom's illness has progressed more slowly than Siewert's.

Siewert's wife, Peggy, challenged Hall to raise $10,000 for "Charlie's MS Angels" team for the bike ride, and Hall says she responded as a way of coping with the stress over her mom's illness.

"This is how I deal with everything," Hall says. "My mom is doing unbelievably well for having MS for 11 years now, but MS is impossible to predict. ... Doing this is how I fight."

Peggy Siewert says she takes pleasure in knowing she gave Hall the push to work toward a major contribution for last year's bike ride.

"She's not in it for any prize at the end, but to make her mom well," Peggy Siewert says.

During the seven months she spent last year raising money for the August ride, Hall tried a variety of fundraising efforts — all run out of her UW residence hall room. She started by writing letters to the parents of her high school classmates, asking for small donations.

The response was immediate. A few days after sending the letters, Hall was in College Library studying when she got a text from a high school friend: "My mom got your letter. ... She cried when she read it, she's copying and sending it to 40 other people."

"To get a response like that, I was in tears," Hall says. "I thought, 'This might actually happen.'"

Despite raising about $5,000 in small individual donations, Hall had to work harder to get to her goal of $10,000. She worked with the National Honor Society at Arrowhead High School in her hometown of Hartland, Wis., to organize a middle school basketball tournament that raised $2,800, and she drafted former teammates from the Arrowhead soccer team to host a series of games that ended up netting about $8,000.

And to earn a $5,000 grant through the Pepsi Refresh fundraising program, Hall traversed campus during the last few weeks of the spring semester, talking professors into letting her steal a few minutes at the beginning of their lectures to ask fellow students to vote for her. With each lecture, she says she gained confidence — and watched her project jump in the rankings.

She didn't get the grant the first month she was in the contest, but prevailed in July, just days before the MS 150. Because she won the grant, a professional project manager from Pepsi Refresh is supporting her fundraising efforts.

"[The project manager] knows what she's doing, and I can call her and say, 'I have this idea, what do you think?'" Hall says, adding that after raising $23,000, "I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm figuring it out."

Ken Huxtable, president of the UW Cycling Team and a senior from Neenah, said Hall brought the same approach when working as an intern to organize the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, attracting hundreds of riders and spectators to Madison in May. Despite having never ridden in a road race, Hall threw herself into preparations, and when she ran across something she didn't know what to do, found a way to make it happen, Huxtable says.

"She's dedicated to getting things done and seeing things through to the end," he says.

In the coming months, Hall says she hopes to meet with some of the multiple sclerosis researchers at UW-Madison and see the labs where they're working on treatments and a potential cure for the disease. She's proud that 85 percent of the MS Society's fundraising dollars go back into research — much of those dollars to labs at UW-Madison.

"To keep going and actually see where the money goes, and to see them at events, that's rewarding," Hall says. "That's the kind of thing that keeps me going."

To learn more about Hall's fundraising efforts, visit her website at http://www.goingfortenthousand.com. To donate, visit her page at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Wisconsin Chapter. To help on Thursday, Feb. 17, visit http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pepsi-Refresh-8-Hour-Challenge-Going-for-Ten-Thousand/154107561311445.