- Jodi Blake
Crafting to "Make MS a Memory"
When you first meet Laura Machonis, you instantly feel her friendliness and her fun sense of humor. She's a petite dynamo with curly hair, sparkling eyes, and a smile that lights up her whole face. But you probably wouldn’t guess what else is going on with Laura.
I first met her at a parent meeting when her son and my daughter were in high school band together. Laura was quick to introduce herself and make me feel at home as a new band mom (she was in her third year in that role). We exchanged the usual pleasantries and inquiries – what year is your kid, what does he/she play, and how does he/she like marching band? Then we found ourselves volunteering with band uniform fittings during band camp, and I knew Laura was someone I could relate to – she cares about helping others, enjoys interacting with students, and likes to make time spent together fun.
A few months later, I learned more about this special woman when another friend and I were at Laura’s house to prep for a Senior Night poster-making session with a bunch of junior band students. Laura shared that she suffers from multiple sclerosis and runs a charitable foundation called MS Crop for a Cause to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Wow, I thought, that’s an incredible way to respond to a diagnosis!
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). In MS, the immune system attacks the sheath (myelin) that covers nerve fibers and causes communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body. Eventually, the disease can cause permanent damage or deterioration of the nerve fibers. Source: Multiple Sclerosis Overview, Mayo Clinic
Naturally, I was interested in how the foundation raised money and other details, and I would discover even more surprises as she responded to my questions, I participated in events, and I continue to follow MS Crop for a Cause on social media.
Surprise 1: Laura’s Diagnosis
As Laura writes on the foundation’s About (From Our Founder) page, her journey with MS started when unexpectedly she went completely blind two months into her pregnancy in 1995. The doctors had no idea what caused this sudden loss of eyesight or whether it would return. Fortunately, Laura gradually regained her sight after about six weeks and went on to welcome a son, Chris, and to enjoy parenthood with husband Jim.
Then two years later, Laura again lost her eyesight while also going numb on her left side – what she calls the “episode.” After a battery of tests, the doctors finally confirmed the MS diagnosis. Laura says for a while it felt like her life was as numb as her left side – no surprise on that one!
Photo 1: Wedding day for Laura and Jim Machonis. Photo 2: Laura's hair stylist station. Photo 3: Band parents Jim and Laura with Marching Hawks band member/son Chris at the 2014 Thanksgiving Day Parade in downtown Chicago.
Laura works as a hair stylist – and you can imagine the many great conversations she has had with her clients over the years. Shortly before the episode, one of her clients had asked her if she and Jim would be interested in volunteering at the check-in table for a local Walk MS event. Of course they said yes. Ironically, by the time of the walk Laura had been diagnosed with MS herself.
When the client returned to the salon for her next appointment, Laura jokingly told her that she wasn’t going to volunteer for anything else for fear of what might happen to her afterwards.
But that attitude really isn’t Laura’s style. Instead, her family started walking in similar events and writing letters to family and friends for donations. Soon they had raised $4,000...and they have been walking ever since.
“I’m so blessed that I can walk and work,” Laura remembered thinking. “But I felt like I needed to do more.”
Surprise 2: How the Foundation Started
After a few years, Laura was talking with some friends when the idea of using her passion for creating scrapbooks (a big craft trend in 2000s) as inspiration for how to fundraise – host crafting events that like-minded people could attend with profits going to the National MS Society.
“Scrapbooking was popular,” Laura said. “I was talking with friends when I thought: we could do an event.”
Shortly after that, she was attending a scrapbook expo convention. Laura mentioned the event idea to a vendor, who promptly handed her a stack of scrapbooking supplies and said, “Here’s your first donation.” It gave her the push to organize that first scrapbooking event – called a “crop,” which is lingo for cropping or trimming photos for scrapbook pages.
Photo 1: Laura, Chris and Jim at the first scrapbooking event, the Super Crop in 2007. Photo 2: Volunteers who worked at the first fundraising event in 2007.
Laura and a small group of volunteers originally thought 25-50 people would be interested in coming, but they were shocked when 110 attendees signed up. It was a scramble to get another meeting room at the church and to switch from ordering pizza for everyone (now way too expensive!) to asking area restaurants for donations. In the end, about 15 restaurants agreed to donate some food, and it was a feat of coordination to get all of the food picked up and to the event. Despite the last-minute effort, the event was a successful proof of concept.
In the first year of organizing scrapbooking events and Walk MS teams, Laura set a goal to raise $10,000 – but they surpassed it by $1,000. She was so excited to write that first donation check to the National MS Society.
Laura explained that she was initially very shy and introverted – which, I admit, is a little hard to believe – but “getting diagnosed made me realize you only have one life and better do everything you can,” she said.
Initially, Laura and her family paid for all expenses, but they couldn’t sustain that model. The next logical step was to form their own charitable foundation. It would allow them to do more events and give them more credibility to fundraise. A local attorney graciously donated his time to help them deal with lots of paperwork as they moved through the approval process to become a 501c foundation with the federal government. It usually takes about 3-4 years to get approval, but they were thrilled to receive approval after only three months.
In 2007, MS Crop for a Cause officially became a foundation. It was important to Laura that the money raised would help everyone – from research funding and medications to financial assistance for people living with the disease and their families. Laura has already seen advances related to MS in the last few years. For example, when she was diagnosed, there were three drugs to fight the disease, but they were hard to get because they were difficult to produce. Now there are more than 20 drugs available.
Surprise 3: How Creativity Continues to Raise Big Money
Photo 1: Scrapbookers strike a "Charlie's Angels" pose with over-sized tape dispensers. Photo 2: An attendee works on a page at a 2016 crop fundraiser. Photo 3: Laura in action at the March Madness Crop 2020.
For several years, Laura and her team of volunteers organized many scrapbooking events – from day-long or evening gatherings to weekend or multi-day trips. (Yes, scrapbookers will travel!) These events were chocked full of multiple ways to raise money, such as raffle baskets overflowing with great prizes and a bargain sales area with donated supplies, but there was never a hard sell to make attendees feel obligated to participate.
I attended one of the large one-day crop events with my scrapbooking supplies in tow. I recall working only a short time on my scrapbook pages because there were so many other things to do – I took my chance on several raffle baskets and was fortunate to win one, I shopped for some bargain-priced supplies, and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner of catered Italian food.
Some events are not as elaborate and might feature “make-and-take” scrapbook page layout or greeting card projects that are completed in a shorter workshop-type setting.
Laura also cultivates relationships with multiple suppliers/vendors, who were generous with product donations. She often receives multiple boxes full of donations each week. Many of these donations ended up with raffle baskets and in awesome “swag bags” for crop event attendees.
One of the many important vendor relationships is with Bonnie and Eric Smith of Paper Wizard, Inc., which sells intricate paper die cut designs for scrapbooking. They host two online Shop & Show live events each year and give the foundation a 20-minute time slot to promote their fundraising events and present a project demo. Project kits are available to order through the Cheap Scrapbook Stuff site for a couple weeks after the live event. You can check out their most recent video on the Paper Wizard site under the S&S Live tab.
Laura shared that she often receives feedback that her promotion approach is too soft, but Eric told her once that if her approach were more “hard core,” he wouldn’t donate because he can tell that Laura is grateful for any support before she even opens her mouth.
Photo 1: Laura adds finishing touches to her canvas during a painting craft event. Photo 2: Yoga fundraiser event. Photo 3: Laura accepting a restaurant night fundraising donation from Riccardo's owner Katy. Photo 4: Cabaret for a Cause fundraiser. Photo 5: Loading a truck with shoe donations.
Running a foundation is not without its challenges. When the scrapbooking industry began changing (it’s common for crafts to wane in popularity after a while), the types of events also needed to evolve. Now many events focus on different crafts like canvas painting, holiday-themed home decorations and cards, and pop-up parties that people can host in their homes with project supplies and swag bags provided by Crop for a Cause. The foundation and its volunteers also sponsor other fundraisers:
Garage sales to sell extra donated supplies
Yoga session fundraisers
Restaurant nights at Riccardo’s in Schaumburg, Illinois. The owners donate 25% of the sales to the foundation.
Cabaret night in partnership with Purpose Productions
Shoe donation campaign (in partnership with Funds2Org) that collects new or gently used shoes, which are shipped to micro-entrepreneurs worldwide to repair and sell in their local markets. Last year they collected 270 bags of 25 pairs of shoes each.
Surprise 4: How Volunteers Make It All Happen
Photo 1: Girl Scout troop members and leaders earn service hours by assembling good bag items at the storage unit. Photo 2: Members of Laura's church volunteer at the 2019 March Madness Crop. Photo 3: Boy Scouts help with setup at the 2019 March Madness Crop. Photo 4: High school students volunteer at the 2019 Walk MS event in Roselle, Illinois.
From the start, Laura insisted that 100% of the proceeds raised would be donated to the National MS Society. In fact, it’s in the foundation’s bylaws. That means Laura cultivates and depends on an ever-growing army of volunteers. In addition, she spends on average 30 hours per week on the charity.
“When you volunteer, you create a community of like-minded people who want to make the world better. That’s a gift to me.” Laura Machonis
Currently, the foundation works with approximately 100 volunteers with 15 having more core responsibilities. Some help in small ways like assembling the goody bags for events, sorting and inventorying supplies and donations, loading supplies to transport to events, and serving as “go-fers” for Laura at Walk MS events.
Photo 1: Members of the satellite Crop for a Cause team at the finish line for the 2019 Walk MS event at Cleveland State University. Photo 2: Volunteers for the first satellite team. Photo 3: Laura cuts the starting line ribbon at Walk MS 2019. Photo 4: This young Walk MS participant caught a ride to help support special people in his life. Photo 5: Even dogs wanted to support the Walk MS 2019 fundraising efforts.
Other volunteers have taken on more involved roles. Some even volunteer remotely from outside of Laura’s Chicagoland location, usually found through the Volunteer Match network.
Illinois: shoe drive coordinators
Texas: social media coordinator intern and a volunteer who sets up forms
Ohio: a web developer and a satellite Walk MS team
Colorado: merchandise shop manager
Massachusetts: volunteer who organizes the charity’s spreadsheets
Volunteers ensure the foundation continues to grow:
Laura recalls a local college student who approached her about setting up a social media presence and offered to work as an intern for a few months to build her skills and resumé. It paid off when the young woman landed a job interview and ultimately the job because of her connection to MS.
For larger events that require a lot of setup and teardown labor or for handling and moving all of the donated supplies, Laura accepts help from youth groups and provides opportunities for students to earn service project hours.
Many volunteers are organizing their own events, such as a shopping mall owner who wanted to support a charity. He paid for a duck pond game that raised $400 during a mall-wide sales promotion.
Volunteers have helped to grow the original Walk MS team to 140+ participants, making them the #1 team at the Hoffman Estates, St. Charles, and North Shore walk events in the Chicagoland area.
At the 10-year anniversary of the foundation, Laura told her volunteers, “Most of you didn’t know what MS was and now you’re champions for it.”
What’s next for Crop for a Cause?
Laura and her team have several goals for the foundation:
As of January 2023, the foundation has raised more than $610,000, but the target is $1 million. (You can find the current fundraising total on their site’s home page.)
They are working to add a merchandise shop to the site for branded T-shirts, hats, and other apparel.
Laura wants a corporate sponsor to “adopt” the foundation.
They need a marketing company to take over marketing responsibilities and help find a corporate sponsor.
Laura’s ultimate goal is to find a younger person with the same passion she has and then pass on the reins.
It won’t be surprising, however, when Laura and the many foundation volunteers find a way to meet each goal.
How Can You Help?
If you would like to get involved with MS Crop for a Cause, check out any of these options:
Donate to the foundation through their site or donate directly to the National MS Society.
Get involved in the 2023 Walk MS event on May 7 in Palatine, Illinois.
Contact the foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer your time and talents.
Check out the upcoming fundraising events on the site’s Events tab and sign up to attend one.
Form a walk team to participate in a Walk MS event in your area or form a satellite team as part of the MS Crop for a Cause foundation.
Check for volunteer activities on the Volunteer Match network.
Follow the foundation’s social media on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/mscropforacause), Instagram (@mscropforacause), Pinterest (@MSCropforaCause or @cropforacause), Twitter (MSCROPFORACAUSE), and LinkedIn (MS CROP FOR A CAUSE).
All photos for this post are provided by MS Crop for a Cause or Laura Machonis.