Memphis Challenge gets down for a cause with first ever dance-a-thon fundraiser

Gray skies and cold rain didn't dampen the vibe inside the Emerge Building on November 30.

It was Memphis Challenge’s first ever Dance-A-Thon Fundraiser. The flat screen monitor in the building’s Tennessee Room usually displays presentations. At the dance-a-thon, it displayed changing kaleidoscope patterns while the speaker system pumped out songs by artists from J.Cole to Latimore.

Students, alums, and other supporters showed off their dance moves between the building’s rustic, wooden columns decorated in white holiday lights.

The event was a fundraiser to help Memphis Challenge expand its offerings.

“I’ve never seen someone dance and be sad,” said Cassandra Webster, executive director of Memphis Challenge. “We wanted something that would be inclusive, something that both the students and parents could be involved in."

Now in its 30th year, Memphis Challenge has a reputation for identifying high-performing students of color and creating a pipeline to the nation’s most elite colleges and universities.

“Top schools look for our students because these schools know they can handle the academic rigors and [have] the capacity to thrive in a diverse community,” said Webster.

“We want them to become critical thinkers. We want them to get a world-class education and then return to Memphis and make a positive impact.”

Memphis Challenge has worked with over 1,500 students, 97% of whom then graduate from top colleges and universities. More than 800 Challenge alum are living and working in Memphis.

The dancers reached out to friends and family who pledged money for every minute danced. Memphis Challenge' fundraising goal is $10,000. Over $6,000 has already been raised.

Cassandra Webster (L), Memphis Challenge' executive director, and Deborah Bluminberg, retired Chicago educator. Bluminberg was visiting family in Memphis for the Thanksgiving holiday and attended the dance-a-thon. (Memphis Challenge)

“It was very inspiring to see people donate to a cause [that is] so important to me,” said Amah Williams, a student at St. Mary’s Episcopal School. “It was a lot of fun to dance with my friends, volunteer, and raise money.”

Williams raised $200 from her pledges.

“It was just a great event overall and it was really nice to be able to have fun with people of all age groups," said Michalia Mister. “[Raising money for this event] helped me with my philanthropic duties, my leadership skills, my communication skills, and my sense of community."

Mister raised $400. She attends East High School and plans to study pre-med at college on her way to becoming a surgeon.

“I am thankful that we were able to dance together as a group and enjoy ourselves. It was a chance to let loose and hang out while [raising] money for future activities for students at Memphis Challenge.” said Xo Figueroa, a student at Power Center Academy.

“I enjoyed being able to hang out with other members from Memphis Challenge and was able to [introduce] my friend to the organization,” Figueroa continued.

Memphis Challenge does not charge students to participate in its program. It operates largely with support from partners such as FedEx, AutoZone, and The Hyde Family Foundation. Like all nonprofits, it still has to raise additional funds. 

“We want to meet our students where they are and seize opportunities as they arise,” said Webster. “The money raised by the dance-a-thon will go towards expanding Memphis Challenge’s programs, funding our multi-city college tour, and supporting our tech scholarship.”

Memphis Challenge has exciting things in store for 2020.

Its Jazz Jam on February 7 will expose students to jazz and other musical genres.

In March, its “Tell Me a Story” program will give students and opportunity to use their creative
skills to show the public a day in the life of a Memphis Challenge student.

“Memphis Challenge gives these high-potential students a chance to bond with like-minded peers and amplify their voices in ways that they may not have thought possible,” said Webster.

Read more articles by Chris Jones.

Chris Jones is an attorney, community and non-profit strategist, and freelance writer.  Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Chris has lived in Memphis for over 25 years.  In his spare time, he loves traveling, learning about history and society, and playing the guitar.