by Aaron Brom and Jim Boyle
A Rogers High School graduate and fan of the CBS reality TV show “Survivor” continued his own version of the popular show this year with his annual Live to Give fundraiser.
Rather than winning money, as the lone survivor does on the TV show, all contestants in Brandon Nelson’s event donate their earnings to a charity, enough so that this year’s July 28-30 event in Elk River raised a whopping $17,764 donated to 20 different charities.
The 2013 Rogers graduate, 22, a current undergraduate student at the University of North Dakota, was beyond pleased with this year’s funds raised, as well as contestant and spectator attendance.
“It went so well!” Nelson said. “It was very fun, everything I expected and more.”
Nelson estimated there were between 40 to 50 volunteers along with more than 100 spectators cheering on the 20 competitors.
Some of those competitors and volunteers are alumni of the famous show itself, such as Ashley Trainer, Holly Hoffman, Sunday Berquest and Brett LaBelle. Trainer and Berquest are from Minnesota, LaBelle traveled from Boston and Hoffman from South Dakota. Berquest and LaBelle also competed in this year’s Live to Give.
“I wanted to combine my passions for charity work with my passion for ‘Survivor,’” Nelson said. “Last year was our first event, and now I have volunteers and a team.”
Each contestant chooses a charity they are passionate about and raised money for that charity. During the event, the contestants then competed for the right to donate a portion of the funds raised by all contestants to the charity of their choice, based on their placement in the event.
Day one, Friday, consisted of competition from 7-10 p.m., including challenges and a tribal council that votes off members. Day two saw competition on and off from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., along with morning doughnuts and coffee, as well as a noon to 6 p.m. grill-out (donation to the CROSS Food Shelf). The final day also started with 7 a.m. competition and featured a noon pizza and afternoon potluck (donation to CROSS), and finally ending competition at 9 p.m. to reveal the winner.
This year’s top prize was won by contestant James Wallington, of Michigan, who secured almost $6,000 for his charity, the Trevor Project.
Wallington is remembered for competing on The CW Television Network reality television show “Capture.” He took part in Live To Give to compete and raise money for his fellow LGBTQ community.
“Growing up in the conservative Midwest was no walk in the park,” he said. “I was bullied relentlessly throughout my school years for being an effeminate gay kid who was passionate about musical theater and the arts.”
He said he’s not the only one with such a story, and that fueled his successful fundraising efforts.
“LGBT youth are often subjected to intense bullying, which can allow them to feel isolated, unloved, unheard, lonely – driving them to have emotional distress or thoughts of suicide. An unsettling fact about suicide is that LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide.”
The Trevor Project is the leading national organization that provides LGBTQ youth, between the ages of 13-24, with intervention and suicide prevention services.
Contestants were also local, with many from Elk River, Rogers and Otsego, including Deb Conley, a former teacher and tennis coach in the Elk River Area School District.
She was introduced as the inventor of “tummy time” and the teacher known as the one who never stops smiling.
“I had so much fun sleeping under the stars with my tribe and meeting amazing contestants,” Conley stated on the contest’s Facebook page. “I loved the poop potato challenge.”
Conley found being out in the woods ironic as she was competing for John Hopkins Lyme disease, which affects thousands of Minnesotans.
“I never thought I would be a victim of Lyme’s until I misdiagnosed a tick blister, and that was a big mistake,” she stated.
Conley said in her post: “Lyme’s disease can cause severe damage to joints and neurological problems. It alters lives. It is difficult to diagnose with blood tests. It must be diagnosed by symptoms. But because it mimics so many other diseases, it is frequently overlooked. Ask around and I bet you know someone who has Lyme’s.”
Some contestants this year were picked from last year’s contest, and many were fans and people who do charity work, Nelson said.
“I assembled my cast and split them up, and they picked their charity. One by one they were voted off,” he said.
Conley was the eighth contestant of 21 voted off, and the first to become a member of the jury, which meant she had a say in who took first place and would claim the $4,000-plus cash prize.
Not only does Nelson hope to continue the Live to Give event, he’ll be moving to Texas to begin graduate work in psychology, with the goal of starting a nonprofit charity.
“Giving to others is my extra passion,” he said. “It was supposed to be a casual thing but grew so quickly. I’m excited, the contestants worked so hard. It’s a real pleasure to see how well everything turned out, and all for charity at the end of the day.”