Coral Gables

University of Miami students pull all-nighter for charity

25 HOURS OF SELFLESSNESS:  From left, Louise Whitaker, Robert Pinney, Cody Lewis and Matt Ellis participate in PhilADthropy.
25 HOURS OF SELFLESSNESS: From left, Louise Whitaker, Robert Pinney, Cody Lewis and Matt Ellis participate in PhilADthropy. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Most college students are well-versed in the art of pulling all-nighters. More often than not, their sleep deprivation is in the name of looming paper deadlines and final exams, but some have used this acquired skill-set for a more altruistic reason.

For a whirlwind 25 hours this weekend, University of Miami students worked non-stop developing ad campaigns for 16 local nonprofits, which otherwise could not likely afford such services from an agency. Now in its sixth year, PhilADthropy offers more than 120 advertising and public relations students professional experience and challenges them to conceptualize their client’s message.

“We offer the organizations full ad campaigns as well as any other creative needs,” said Meryl Blau, a professor of advertising who started and coordinates the program. “I like to give my students as much real world experience as possible.”

Students were not introduced to their clients until the beginning of the marathon Friday morning, when organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Paws for You came to discuss concepts with the student team.

Armed with coffee and energy drinks, the students then set off to create everything from websites to billboards for the clients before they returned the next morning.

“They come in really excited to work but they sometimes underestimate their abilities, so they’re always surprised about what they are able to accomplish in this period of time,” Blau said.

Senior Alexandria Van Deusen, a PhilADthropy veteran, says that last year her teams created in one day what usually would take them a month in the classroom. The experience is worth the stress of the time pressure for her.

“This allows you to get a foot in the door,” said Van Deusen, who is a creative advertising minor. “I wanted to get some good exposure to working with clients and be able to apply what I have learned to real-life situations.”

Her team was paired with Catalyst Miami, an anti-poverty foundation. They were undaunted by the sleepless hours ahead, although senior Francisco Alustiza came prepared with pillows just in case.

“Sometimes you hit a wall at 6 a.m., but you power through because the clients are coming soon,” said team leader volunteer Danny Barry, who participated in the marathon as an undergrad all four years.

As the sun rose, students began to feel the elation of their accomplishments.

“Collectively as a whole, this probably was one of our most successful years,” Blau told the students and organizations before the presentations began Saturday morning. “The way some of these teams moved their clients forward is amazing and beautiful.”

For the founder of Project Knucklehead, Amir Whitaker, the results were overwhelming. He started the organization to inspire at-risk youth by introducing them to the arts, but did not have the resources to develop all of the materials needed.

“We never would have thought to take it to this level,” said Whitaker, 30. “This exceeds my expectations by far.”

The students created posters, a press release template, a website, stickers, backpacks, phone covers and social media accounts — all branded with a logo they had developed.

“We wanted the logo to be clean and deliverable to both audiences and target the people who donate as well as the kids,” said Gianna Balasco, a creative advertising senior.

The group said that after first meeting with Whitaker, they became inspired by his determination and selflessness. Whitaker had spent his childhood visiting his parents in prisons and later entered the juvenile justice system himself, but he went on to graduate high school and earn five college degrees. He dreamed of Project Knucklehead two years ago to help young people with stories similar to his.

“We started off the night by reading his personal story and it was very inspiring, so that kept us going,” said Emma Deardorft, a marketing and public relations sophomore.

Whitaker, who got teary-eyed during the presentation, says that he was touched by their hard work and the lengths they took to understand the organization’s message.

“This is going to go a long way,” Whitaker said. “This is going to be why students stay in school. It shows them there are a lot of people who care.”

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