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In sweat-free summer, cash for charity dries up

If there’s one thing political Washington can agree on, it’s fundraising, and sometimes sports. Both are in limbo

From left, Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., stretch before last year’s Congressional Women's Softball Game at Watkins Elementary in Washington. This year’s game is in limbo.
From left, Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan., stretch before last year’s Congressional Women's Softball Game at Watkins Elementary in Washington. This year’s game is in limbo. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“You can’t throw a softball virtually,” says Rep. Cheri Bustos, and that gets to the heart of a problem in Washington this summer. With events on hold because of the coronavirus, so is breaking a sweat for charity.

Practice for the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game should be in full swing by now, but not this year. 

“I have to convince my children to keep their mother in shape,” says senator (and team co-captain) Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been training off and on at home.

Typically held in June, the softball game pits female lawmakers against a team of journalists from the D.C. press corps, known as the “Bad News Babes.” The goal is to bond on the field, talk some trash, and most importantly, raise money for the Young Survival Coalition, a group that helps young adults affected by breast cancer.

Now all that is postponed. A new date for the game is still TBD, and fundraising has stalled. So far organizers have raised $135,000, nowhere near the $365,000 they raked in last year.

It’s just one setback of many for the Young Survival Coalition. The nonprofit has seen donations decline. Leaders called off an annual bike ride for survivors and supporters, the Tour de Pink. And recently they announced they would furlough the majority of employees.

“While this pandemic is serious, breast cancer doesn’t really care,” says CEO Jennifer Merschdorf, who hopes volunteers can fill the gap as the charity rebuilds. The financial distress “began with COVID-19,” she wrote in a press release this spring, and is “impossible to overstate.”

“This is an organization that’s struggling like so many charities,” says Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. She’s co-founder of the softball game and a breast cancer survivor. The mission is especially meaningful to her, since she was just 41 when cancer struck.

“It was the last thing I ever expected,” she told Heard on the Hill in 2017, on the 10-year anniversary of her diagnosis. “My children were so little and I didn’t want them to be scared.” 

Washington is a hotbed of sporting events that team up Congress and a good cause. Other cities have galas stocked with bowties and ice sculptures, and this one has them too, but the congressional games make up a mini charity circuit of their own. In any given month, you can find members of Congress lacing up their cleats or running shoes, ready to compete in front of crowds made up primarily of staffers, journalists and other political nerds.    

The pandemic has all but shut it down. May came and went without the ACLI Capital Challenge, a 5k road race that usually sees Sen. Kyrsten Sinema blow away the competition in her bracket and Rep. Mike Gallagher run a sub-6:30 split. Sponsored by a life insurance trade group, the event benefits Junior Achievement, a nonprofit that promotes financial literacy. Organizers have named a new date in the fall, Sept. 24, and hope the race can go ahead, better late than never. 

As for the Congressional Baseball Game, the biggest sports-plus-politics event of the summer, that’s on hold too. Republicans were scheduled to face off against Democrats on June 10, continuing a century-old tradition. But for the first time since 1961, organizers postponed the game, and they have yet to reschedule. 

“We urge anyone who is able to sponsor and cut checks early to please do so,” went a plea from Ryan Thompson, president of Congressional Sports for Charity. His group runs the baseball game and distributes funds to local nonprofits in the District.

Home Runs for Horton’s Kids, another event that convenes a bipartisan group of lawmakers, has been postponed until Sept. 22. It benefits kids in one of the District’s underserved neighborhoods, Wellington Park.

For those fundraisers and more, the future is uncertain. “Everyone has just been in a holding pattern,” said Atalie Ebersole, who heads the board of directors for the softball game. She had “just started raising funds when the coronavirus hit the U.S.” 

As Washington continues to reopen in phases, parks and recreation facilities will once again be fair game, and restrictions on gatherings will ease. But for the softball team, in-person practices will still depend on the House and Senate schedules, and no one knows when the coronavirus could peak again.

In the meantime, Wasserman Schultz is encouraging her team to get outside and “limber up” so they can “hit the ground running” when they return.

If there’s anything to look forward to, new players might be it. The members team is still recruiting. “We’ve got a few secret weapons,” she teased.

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