Ice Buckets & Pennies from Heaven

Is there a coincidence that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has played out in such a dramatically successful way all over the world and at the same time we have been victimized by some of the worst news stories in recent memory? They’re piling up on us so rapidly, it seems surreal. What can we learn about social media, about philanthropy, about the human condition by this extraordinary phenomenon?

The setting for this viral movement is reflective and important. Beheadings. Ebola. Ferguson. Israel and Gaza. Russia and the Ukraine. Thousands of children streaming over our borders in search of a new life. Floods, tornados, hurricanes and sinkholes. Economy sputtering. Election silly season. The loss of Robin Williams, and with it the loss of humor often found in life’s serious side.

Amidst all of these nightly assaults from our televisions−and if we manage to miss it, there’s always the morning news to bring it right back−there was something that happened that gave us joy. It gave us something to do about the human plight. And we were pulled together in one unbroken human chain, from coast to coast, continent to continent.

The Ice Bucket Challenge. A moment in time. A silly, personal action that we share with millions on social media, inspiring laughs all across computer tops, iPads and iPhones in a nanosecond. It has popped up every once in a while for different charities and causes. But this year, this year was so different. An obscure disease, actually called an orphan disease, afflicting “only” 30,000 people in the United States. Maybe the small numbers reminded us of how we feel against the global times we live in and the hopelessness we carry around with us to effect any change at all.

But there was this thing you could do. This cold bucket of ice thing. And you could dump it over your own head. Shock yourself and take a video of it, then share it on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the rest. You could make your friends do this, too. And then go to your computer and donate money to the ALS challenge, which has received over $109 million dollars, nationally, with about $1 million coming from the state of Massachusetts alone. And there’s no end in sight.

And for two or three weeks the little worlds we live in threw buckets of ice water over our heads−a personal moment of control over this bombardment of grief in our world. Have you done it? Even on a really hot day it jolts you. It’s as if the memories of a beheading, of a boy lying in the street oozing blood into the pavement, of dirty homeless children flooding this land of made-up dreams, of rockets red glare, red dragons, and bleeding eyes, were put out of our minds and our hearts for just a little while. We took control over our mental anguish and turned it positive, joyful, helpful and hopeful.

Not only has this event raised more money than has ever been collected at one time in ALS research, but there are also now over 3 million new donors. The challenge has created new opportunities to communicate, engage and develop people who previously had no interest or even knowledge about ALS.

Imagine if a PR person planned all this. Well, they would be receiving some top honors somewhere. But that didn’t happen. It began with one person–Pete Frates–totally disabled now, and without speech, he and his family began this to try to raise some money. And it went out of control. PR people rushed to keep up with it. Meetings are still being held to strategically invest these new dollars. And every day we see a new twist, watch a new video. Sometimes, you just don’t have any control at all.

A bucket of ice. Who knew? Who knows the power it will have on inroads to a cure? But in each of our small worlds, magnified on the screen of social media, we took control, we chose to laugh, we chose to do something rather dramatic, rather beautiful–we chose to be the essence of who we can be. We chose peace for a moment or two, or maybe because we shared it in those nanoseconds, the peace lasted a little longer. And in our gigging, shivering wetness, how beautiful we are!

It has been my great honor and privilege to support the communications and public relations efforts of the ALS Association’s Massachusetts Chapter, where the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge originated. In a 30-year career, I thought I had experienced the best of the best, but this was one unexpected joy.

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