The power of grassroots fundraising

Suzanne Reisler Litwin, born and raised in Montreal, is a mom and an educator at Concordia University in the Continuing Education department.  She also teaches creative writing courses at the Cumming Centre. She holds creative writing workshops depending on where the need is and writes a bi-monthly column in The Suburban newspaper.

JDRF recently had the chance to talk with Suzanne about her more than 40 years of fundraising for the organization and her hopes for the future.

JDRF: Tell us about your time with JDRF and why you’ve been so committed to the cause for so many years.

Suzanne: It started 43 years ago, when I was 18 years old, in 1981. I think I was 17 and I had a little crush on Jimmy Garfinkle’s brother David (brothers who live with type 1 diabetes and are members of JDRF’s Montreal-based founding families).  So when he asked me to do the Bike-a-Thon (one of the first JDRF fundraising events), I obliged. I took a few girlfriends with me, and we were all eager to help and support the type 1 diabetes (T1D) community.  It was very grassroots, the way in which we got donors, you had to go door-to-door and ask for support. It was a 50km bike ride, and people would donate 10 cents or 25 cents a kilometer.  We had sponsor sheets, and once the event was completed, we went back to the donors to collect the proposed funds.  Everything was in coins and dollars. I had to go to the bank, roll the coins, and make a cheque for the foundation.

As for me and David? David and I were not to be.   But I ended up marrying Jimmy’s best friend, so we stayed very close, raising our families together and being forever friends.

For me, raising donations for the Bike-a-Thon was fun.  A sponsor would offer a dollar a kilometer, and it was amazing. In the first year, I raised about $100, then a bit more, and then a few years later I raised $1000 and became an Executive Rider. That provided us with an executive rider tent.  At that point, the event had moved from Hampstead to a larger location because it was getting too big for the original location.  We would ride a 5km route, and do it 10 times, riding through the city of Montreal.  

At this point as well, I was given more tools to reach out to more people who had already sponsored me. In 1987, I started sending letters to my sponsors. The organization was called JDF (Juvenile Diabetes Foundation) at the time.  They gave me the JDF letterhead, and I used it to type out my personalized text, and we ran it through the printers. Everything was done by hand; nothing was digital yet. I didn’t realize it then, but these 20-25 letters would become the cornerstone of my fundraising efforts.

Those JDF sponsor letters produced $2, 3, 4K – and then I got creative. I decided the best way to get funds was to give a ‘gift’ or a ‘gift with purchase’.  In 1997, I wrote a rap, in 1998 I wrote a ‘cheer; in 1999 I ‘sent a penny’ as our team’s lucky charm.  I gave everyone a penny hoping to raise more money, the next year I increased it to a nickel.  Then I started to give items from the dollar store, like a mirror, for our theme “mirror mirror on the wall’, asking our sponsors to look into the mirror and see an amazing fundraiser.

For my 20th year JDRF fundraising anniversary, I sent a wedding anniversary invitation.  The following years, I would send Blackjack playing cards, lottery tickets, post-its, anything that was flat, light and inexpensive, went into the letters. People started anticipating a theme. I’d get stopped in the grocery store and people would ask me, what’s this year’s theme?

In 2004, we switched from the Bike-a-Thon to the Walk (JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes). During the ride, four years in a row, we had terrible weather. Rain, snow, people were freezing, the Bike-a-Thon, now called the Cyclothon was in May, which can still be dicey weatherwise in Montreal. We looked at each other and said there had to be a better way. So, we switched to doing the Walk (which takes place in June).

It was around this time, I started focusing on annual fundraising themes, and then in 2013, I made the switch to digital media. I was able to work with super talented graphic designers. When I turned 50, the theme was, “50 Shades of Suzie”. The gift with the letter was a 50 cent coin!  At this point, all my sponsor letters and fundraising went digital and the campaigns were raising $15K to $20K, went to $25K, The campaigns were really consistent with these big numbers and everybody was still receiving gifts. The campaign themes were becoming entertaining, which caused some curiosity.

Today, I cap the sponsor letters at 250. It’s just enough so I can keep costs down, and still raise a significant amount of funds.  (JDRF note: Suzanne doesn’t charge anything back to JDRF and everything is done out of pocket).

After the pandemic, I realized the strength of social media and how powerful it can be. With social media, I was able to create ‘interactions’ with my sponsors and media followers.  I think it was in 2022, I’m just learning how to do these things, as I’m no spring chicken, ya know.  I had my face photo shopped into Rosie the Riveter.  Instead of the statement ‘We Can Do It!’ we wrote, ‘We Can Cure It’.  We sent our sponsors a red bandana and asked them to take a photo wearing it and making the hallmark fist pump. The photos got posted to social media everywhere.  That’s when the campaign got traction. People would ask me for a bandana.  We had so many photos of people, babies, children, dogs doing Rosie the Riveter. We raised a lot of funds for this campaign and I realized the power of social media and interaction.  People wanted to be part of this “Fun-raising”.  Anyone who asked me for a bandana, I would say sure, but I would also ask for a donation to JDRF.

Last year (2023), we sent our sponsors round colourful glasses, based on the 1960’s and a groovy theme. The campaign created wonderful interest, curiosity and amazing participation. We raised over $44,000 trucking down the JDRF highway!

This year (2024), we sent big $ dollar sign rhinestone gold necklaces and feathers. Our theme and slogan is ‘Viva Las Curas’ (Live the Cure), which is based on the glamour and high rollers of Las Vegas. I really had to think hard this year – How was I going to spin Vegas into a diabetes cure?  The idea took months, what were we going to send, how can we mail it?  We landed on FEATHER$$ and Viva Las Curas.

Today, we are so far so good. I am receiving Viva Las Curas pictures, and we are on track. Every month, I need to raise about a third of my goal leading up to the Walk. I believe there is a good chance I might get close to $50K.  We hope everyone participates. It’s all about the T1D community, having fun; I call it ‘FUN-raising’. It’s also about awareness, and helping more people learn about T1D and its impact on people who live with it.

But… I must emphasize – I don’t do this on my own. I have a team of people who work with me every year. Excellent printers, graphic designers, artists, friends and family and we regroup every year, and think about how we can do it again, even better, next year.  The JDRF Staff/friends (Staffriends) are the most amazing people to work with.  JDRF and its staff are simply the most BEAUTIFUL and THE BEST!  We couldn’t do what we do without this amazing organization and peeps.

Even my Mom, who will be 90 years old, is a huge participant in the complete process.  It’s a family thing, and it ends up being a very big part of my life, our lives.

It’s not just a fundraising campaign, it’s part of the landscape of who I am.  And I have two personal feelings about it – I like to finish everything I start in my life.  I feel I started this, and it’s not finished, so I continue.  My other personal quest is, if it should happen, if there is a cure for T1D realized in my lifetime, we, our team, would be a part of that success.  That my time here on earth was useful, not just for my family and my career, but for mankind. I don’t ever want to give up that opportunity of a T1D ground breaking success.  Even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I can still rest knowing that we have tried, in my life, to change the trajectory of mankind, and that we never gave up.

Even when I see people using their CGMs (continuous glucose monitors that measure blood glucose levels in people with diabetes), I feel we helped contribute to that. Non nobis solum, Latin for ‘not for ourselves alone’.  Not just for us, but for everyone.  We go through life as yourselves, and those closest to us.  I ask, what is your footprint in this world?  This is our opportunity to maybe create a life changing footprint. For this, we are not willing to give up. I believe something will be realized soon (when it comes to cures for T1D).  If not in my lifetime, perhaps in my children’s lifetime.  This is the wonderful opportunity that we work with and love.

JDRF gives me almost carte blanche to do what I want. Other organizations don’t provide that type of freedom, I share the campaign theme with my JDRF co-workers, I get the OK and I can exercise my creativity.  Then we run with it.  We trust each other.

It’s a gift for me, that I can continue to do this year over year. I love it. It’s a tremendous, creative space for me.  The Walk brings people together in an enthusiastic way.  This year I have so many more requests from people who want to join our team, Suzie’s Sweethearts, who will embrace our Vegas showgirls and showguys theme. We will all be wearing special T-shirts and FEATHER$$ at the Walk this June.

This year, while walking, we will give away our feathers and necklaces to children walking near us.  By the time we finish, we don’t usually have what we started with as we share the joy while Walking to Cure T1D.

After the Walk, team Suzie’s Sweethearts goes back to my home, to relax and enjoy the accomplishment. Then I get into bed around 3pm, and I sleep for hours in the most content sleep.  When I wake up I usually say, ‘OK, what’s next’?

Other organizations have tried to poach saying, ‘you’ve done so much for JDRF, maybe come to us for one year’.

But I always go back to my original promise I told Jimmy and David, as long as you have diabetes, we will do this. I committed to them, and they committed to me.  Sadly, there is growth in the T1D community, so we can’t stop now, we mustn’t stop!

Our fundraising takes up to 10 months of the year, it’s constant work. I take the month of July off after the Walk. In August, we send out really amazing thank you letters to our sponsors. Then, the process starts again in September, October to come up with the next theme, the slogans, gifts, and the graphics, to keep the momentum going. (We have a thought for 2025 😉)

We will keep going until the day we have cures for T1D, and I have kept my promise to Jimmy and David.

If you would like to support Viva Las Curas please follow this link:

To participate in or volunteer for the “JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes”:

To receive our “Viva Las Curas” sponsor letter package, please email:

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