Alum's Penn State network, passion connects charitable efforts to communities

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter. You can click here for information on becoming a member, and can follow the Alumni Association on and  for more stories and updates on events. 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To understand how Josh Blair, Class of 1997, arrived at his current destination — co-president of a nonprofit organization that’s working across the country to raise awareness for bone marrow donations — you have to understand where he started.

Penn State.

Blair’s built a national network since graduating. In addition to completing a tour in the U.S. Army, he’s worked at Internet startups and national companies Revlon, Panasonic, Coty Inc. and ESPN, acting as webmaster of a corporate network. “I’m a networker,” Blair said. “If you’ve read 'The Tipping Point,' I’m the connector.”

The jobs, Blair said, allowed him to work across an entire company, and his national network keeps him moving. He’ll be in Florida one day, then travel to Texas for South by Southwest (a film/music festival he attended this year) and also plan and attend events in New York City and elsewhere along the East Coast.

So when Blair refers to himself as “the connector” in Malcolm Gladwell’s book that discusses how an idea or trend can spread across society, he knows what he’s talking about.

Blair’s fast-moving career follows his time as a single dad while at Penn State. His son, Travis, is currently a Division III All-American soccer standout at Wheaton College (Massachusetts) — where, Josh quickly points out, the school colors are blue and white and their nickname is the “Lyons,” pronounced the same as “Nittany Lions.”

Travis spent plenty of time with his dad while Josh earned his degree at Penn State, tagging along with him to class and spending time on the University Park campus when he was between 2 and 4 years old.

Josh started to describe this connection but then he stopped. His emotions got the best of him.

“My son grew up at Penn State, and he was welcomed by professors,” Josh said. “He went to class with me at The Forum, and there are former professors who still check in on him. It’s amazing. You want to talk about a place — I can't even get through it without crying — a place that raised and nurtured a kid. Travis will tell you.”

That strong connectivity with Penn State plays a strong role in Blair’s current position. He’s co-president of Bridgilance, a nonprofit organization that’s “designed to bridge the gap between charitable efforts and underserved communities,” according to the organization’s website.

Fellow Penn Staters and former varsity athletes James Burrell, ’95, who also serves as co-president with Blair, John Gilmore, ’01, who the Penn State Alumni Association honored with the Alumni Achievement Award in 2012 after he played in the NFL for nearly a decade and Justin Williams, ’95, ’98g, are board members.

Bridgilance organized a Big Man Clinic in February in Harlem, New York, to raise awareness for bone marrow donors for blood cancer patients and people with sickle cell anemia — a group of rare disorders that cause red blood cells to become misshapen. According to WebMD, sickle cell anemia affects nearly 100,000 people in the United States, mainly African-Americans. 

Blair previously worked as a consultant at a bone marrow donor center, where he offered his opinion on how to encourage more minorities to register for the national directory. African-Americans comprise only 7 percent of the bone marrow registry — a discrepancy that stood out to Blair, whose son is mixed race — so he started connecting with Burrell, Gilmore and Williams, and also with Curt Marshall, ’86, coordinator of multicultural programs at Penn State.

Blair and his Penn State colleagues realized they could do something on their own, he said, and there’s a grassroots feel that underscores the message they’re sharing. 

“We said to ourselves: ‘We can do something to help minorities learn about the issue and get signed up,’” Blair said.

That’s when they organized a basketball clinic in Harlem, where they partnered with the New York City Public Schools Athletic League, the largest high school athletic league in the country comprising mostly minority students. Former NBA players Butch Beard and Clifford Ray assisted with the Big Man Clinic, which also featured former Lady Lions standouts Helen Darling, ’01 and Andrea Garner, ’00.

Usually, many of the players charge a fee for their appearance, Blair said, but most helped out for free. Gilmore and Marshall were also there to assist Blair; both have been great friends with him for more than a few decades.

About 30 people were swabbed and added to the bone marrow registry earlier this year during a basketball clinic in Harlem, N.Y., that Bridgilance organized. “We’ll take 30 swabs there, and take another 30 in the future, and keep building,” said former NFL player and Penn State graduate John Gilmore, who sits on the board of directors for Bridgilance. Gilmore, whose known for community support and co-founded the Gilmore-Henne Foundation, has taken on a more active role with Bridgilance as the group continues to make strides in its early stages. 

Image: Getty Images

While he was enrolled at Penn State, Blair lived across the street from Marshall; the two have plenty in common and have many mutual friends, Marshall said, so they’ve stayed in touch over the years. The same goes for Gilmore, who will joke during board meetings that Blair used to babysit him growing up. They’re friends through their parents and both grew up in Reading.

Beyond the strong friendships, Gilmore and Marshall found motivation for additional reasons. Gilmore’s traversed this course before, starting a nonprofit organization. Marshall, meanwhile, lost his father to prostate cancer last year and his mother the year before. “Cancer has hit my family,” he said, offering another reason why he assisted Blair at the Big Man Clinic.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, and we’re both big on giving back,” Marshall said. “Josh is a great connector. We share that same type of networking blood — putting people together.”

The students were absolutely enthused, Marshall added, and although they were there for the basketball clinic, about 30 people were swabbed and added to the donor registry.

Gilmore said 30 may not sound like a lot, but it’s about generating momentum. “We’ll take 30 swabs there, and take another 30 in the future, and keep building,” he said. The group also raised money with a post-event reception, and the entire day was tinged with blue-and-white, as Darling and Garner oversaw drills when the players broke into different stations.

Darling instructed youngsters on passing into the post from a guard’s perspective, and even participated herself, saying she got physical and wasn’t afraid to foul the bigger players she was guarding. Darling joked that the high school students didn’t know who she and the other instructors were, but after looking on their phones, they realized they were working with high-level talent.

Much like Gilmore and Marshall, Darling became involved through a Penn State connection. Garner and Darling are best friends and were teammates on the Lady Lions. Garner clued Darling into what was happening, and Darling then spoke to Blair.

“He asked me, and I said I was in,” Darling said.

In some ways, it was an easy decision for Darling because she understood Blair’s mindset. She’s been an advocate for causes most of her life, previously acting as spokeswoman for March of Dimes and breast cancer awareness; Darling’s also been a literacy advocate for decades, has written children’s books and founded the teenage empowerment group Uniquely Made. The organization strives to help teens who are going through difficult times in their life.

“It’s really important to give back,” Darling said. “I really encourage people, even at a young age, to give back. Find a cause that’s dear to you and be a part of it.”

Darling also said the work Blair’s doing is especially important because African-Americans are more at-risk for certain blood diseases that require bone marrow donations.

Additionally, Blair hopes to work in the future with Penn State football coach James Franklin for a fundraising event or appearance. Franklin announced last summer that his daughter, Addison, has sickle cell anemia, and Blair has already had some early conversations with Franklin and the football staff.

They have plenty of ambitious goals for the future, but Blair and his group have already made tremendous strides in the early stages, Gilmore stated confidently. He sounded sure because he’s navigated this terrain before.

Gilmore co-founded the Gilmore Henne Community Fund with NFL quarterback Chad Henne, who attended the same Pennsylvania high school as Gilmore. The fund provides grants to revitalize parks and recreational facilities in Berks County and also provides financial support for Berks County student-athletes who maintain a respectable grade point average and will continue their education at the collegiate level.

This work led to Gilmore’s Alumni Achievement Award honor, and he became inspired to create the nonprofit after returning to a park in Reading, where he played as a child; the park was ravaged with graffiti and litter, among other debris. Gilmore could relate to Blair’s enthusiasm when starting a nonprofit, but he also cautioned him to be realistic.

Nobody is going to be as passionate as you are about your cause when you first start, Gilmore told Blair, so consistency and reaching small goals are important.

Former WNBA players Andrea Garner, left, Rushia Brown and Helen (all wearing gold shirts) participated in February's Big Man Clinic in Harlem, N.Y.; Darling and Garner are Penn State graduates and former standouts with the Lady Lions. “It’s really important to give back,” Darling said. “I really encourage people, even at a young age, to give back. Find a cause that’s dear to you and be a part of it.”

Image: Getty Images

The Big Man Clinic was especially impressive, Gilmore said, given the group’s limited timetable and all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into organizing such an event. And that the clinic took place in New York City around the NBA’s All-Star Weekend proved additionally special, Gilmore added, because of the post-event reception that enabled Blair and Bridgilance to network with what Gilmore called “some pretty serious people” — doctors, athletes, marketers, attorneys, business professionals, etc.

“To do what we’ve done in the first couple months — it’s great, but it’s all about sustainability,” Gilmore said. “We have to work to create a sustainable effort and the resources that go into this, and keep it moving forward. We've got to create that foundation.”

Blair and Bridgilance are moving forward, with an event in Philadelphia scheduled for late May. The group is working with the city to host a health fair and football/cheerleading clinic, with another Penn State graduate playing a crucial role to form the partnership. Ade Fuqua, ’96, serves as the chief of staff for the mayor of Philadelphia and is also how Darling and Garner came on board for the Big Man Clinic; he’s friends with the former teammates. Blair said Fuqua’s position with Philadelphia and his ability to bring the city in as a partner shows the strength of the Penn State alumni network.

There are also fundraisers planned for Brooklyn in June — where they’ll have a bone marrow drive at a football camp — and in New Orleans at the start of July, where a basketball camp and fundraiser at the House of Blues is scheduled. There’s also the possibility for a future Happy Hour-type event in New York City.

“In all cases, Penn Staters play a critical role,” Blair said. “The events are free for urban youth, and we are bringing our message of awareness about the shortage of people of color on the bone marrow registry.”

There are a lot of moving pieces, but plans typically come together. At the reception after the Big Man Clinic, for example, the executive chef was Williams’ brother-in-law, a big Penn State fan. Connections like this one are typical. Blair knows somebody or has a friend who knows somebody who wants to help.

There’s usually a blue-and-white connection, which leads to the obvious question: Does working with fellow Penn Staters make a difference?

“There’s no doubt about it,” Blair said. “It eliminates a lot of the preamble conversation that’s needed to explain who you are. There are layers to my network, and the Penn State piece is a big piece of it.”

“It’s a family — you know you came from Penn State and you try to support one another,” Darling added. “Anytime somebody tells me they’re from Penn State, I try to help out with what they're doing.”

Blair initially reached out to Gilmore to ask for advice on starting a nonprofit organization. “It’s Josh’s concept, it’s his baby,” said Gilmore, who has taken on an increasingly more active role and is known for his commitment to community support.

“I really didn't think I’d be as involved as I am now,” Gilmore said, “but when you see somebody so passionate about a cause that needs some attention, you can’t help but lend a hand.”

Gilmore and Marshall both said they were previously unaware of the wide gap that exists for minorities finding a match in the bone marrow registry, and credit Blair for them now knowing.

Gilmore said, “When you say the numbers out loud, it’s crazy,” referring to the lack of minority bone marrow donors who are registered. He plans to add himself but is waiting for the right moment.  

As with Blair’s hope that Franklin and his family can potentially do a swabbing at a game — perhaps the Blue-White football scrimmage next year — Gilmore doesn’t simply want to go through the act. He wants to make an impact.

“It’s one thing to swab, but I want to make a lot of noise when I do it,” Gilmore said. “It’s all about awareness right now. We've got to raise awareness.

Blair envisions other efforts in the future, saying his vision for the group is to work on health care issues that impact minorities and other issues that inordinately impact economically disadvantaged communities.  

For now, however, Blair and Bridgilance’s main mission this year is increasing the number of minority bone marrow donors. Reaching that point will require tremendous work, sacrifice, patience and perhaps a host of other character traits that aren’t easily acquired, he and others have hinted.

It’s a difficult yet attainable task, and they like their chances.

“What better group of people to serve up that network and that message than Penn Staters?” Gilmore said. “We’re one of the strongest networks in the world, and I’m very proud to say that.”

News Source : Alum's Penn State network, passion connects charitable efforts to communities
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