Sara Allen Abbott and her father, Joe Allen, bonded over football when she was a child, watching the games of the now-defunct Houston Oilers. When her father was diagnosed in 2003 with early onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 63, Allen Abbott and her sister, Kate Allen Stukenberg, set out to raise money in his honor. It turns out that all of those football games Allen Abbott watched with dad came in handy.
The sisters and two of their friends created the Blondes vs. Brunettes flag football game in Washington, D.C. in 2005, with all proceeds going to the Alzheimer’s Association, based in Chicago. The first year’s game had more than 150 attendees, raised $10,000 and was pulled together in only six weeks, she said.
The event continues to grow, with eight games in cities with Alzheimer’s Association chapters. Nearly 400 participants were involved in last year’s games, raising an estimated $500,000. The event has raised $1 million since its inception (or receptions).
"It definitely started out very grassroots," said Allen Abbott, a former fundraiser at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. "Some of my guy friends were referees for Halloween and wore the referee costumes for the game. Now it takes at least six months to organize an event."
The four original organizers were all connected in some way to Alzheimer’s through family members or friends, and bonded over their experiences, Allen Abbott said. Many fundraising events for young people in the Washington, D.C. area are black tie, which can be costly and too formal, she said. The idea for Blondes vs. Brunettes was a way to engage younger donors and volunteers to advocate for a cause in a healthy and fun way, at only $20 a ticket.
"We wanted to do something cost-effective, that wouldn’t break the bank," she said. "It was a way to meet other young people, and it was a lot more affordable. We (organizers) were all from the South too, and were big football fans."
Different cities put their own spin on the event, Allen Abbott said, with some taking it more seriously than others.
"In Houston, it’s very campy, and they goof off a lot," she said. "But in Washington, the rivalry is intense. If friends are on opposite teams, they usually don’t talk the weekend of the games."With a bit of pride, Allen Abbott, a brunette, added, "The Brunettes have won every year in Washington for the past five years."
Some teams have more than 100 members, she said, so not all of the girls get to play in the actual game. Team members all have to fundraise though, and can help to host event sponsors who in the past have included, Vitamin Water, Muscle Milk and Budweiser, she said.
Allen Abbott said she would love to see the event continue to grow, and one day even have its own Super Bowl, with the two largest teams competing. Also, she said having a game in every state with an Alzheimer’s Association chapter would be a great accomplishment.
Creating an event in her father’s memory has been a meaningful experience for Allen Abbott who is now 33 and lives in Boston. Although he never got to go to one of the games Allen Abbott played in, her father, who died in 2008, did go to a Houston Blondes vs. Brunettes game and watched her sister play, and expressed the pride he felt at both daughters’ work. The games are a way for those whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer’s to bond and a way to keep Joe Allen’s memory alive for his family, she said.
"My kids will never know their grandfather, but they will know these games were created for him," Allen Abbott said. "These games help families realize its okay to talk about what they are going through with Alzheimer’s, and that it’s not something to be embarrassed about. It’s nice to know other people who know what you are going through with the disease." NPT