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Fraternal Order of Eagles keeps UMMS research flying high

Date Posted: Dec 21, 2020

Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie Logo.jpg 

While certain scientific achievements, such as the coronavirus vaccines, can break through quickly when fueled by funding in the millions, most research efforts are decades-long explorations into the causes of humankind’s most devastating afflictions. And in order for those explorations to yield meaningful and viable results, they require many years of funding support from both federal and private sources.

UMass Medical School molecular medicine faculty Gregory Pazour, PhD, and Paul Greer, PhD, have seen lab costs and the number of investigators vying for grants continue to increase. For scientists like them, community-based funding from an organization famous for its bake sales, meat raffles, golf outings and trivia nights, has been vital.

“I tell members of my lab that when they look through our dissecting microscope, they are looking through the Fraternal Order of Eagles scope,” Dr. Pazour said, appreciative of the $30,000 the Eagles donated to support his lab’s research into the causes of polycystic kidney disease, one of the most common and life-threatening genetic disorders. “We are limited by money, and the fact that the Eagles are supporting us makes all the difference. Their donations go toward helping us to keep the lab running optimally. It’s just critically important.”

The Eagles also support the Greer lab’s research into genes called Ms4a and any link they may have to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. “Ms4a genes are relatively understudied, yet may account for 10 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases—a staggeringly large number considering all the people who get the disease, which is six million in the U.S. alone,” Dr. Greer explained.

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Paul Greer, PhD, and Gregory Pazour, PhD

This type of support functions like a seed grant, enabling the Greer lab to conduct its research and collect the data necessary to gain funding from other sources, such as the National Institutes of Health. “We are studying Ms4a in a different disease context, but federal funding is slower for transitions, such as ours to Alzheimer’s, so we’re fortunate to have the Eagles’ contributions,” Dr. Greer said.

Studies of the Ms4a gene are possible because of a revolution in DNA sequencing and these studies are leading the way to discover new, more effective therapeutics for Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Greer. “It’s so hard to predict what will pan out, but if it’s a drug to treat this disease, it’s hard to imagine anything that could be any more impactful.”

Making the connection

The Pazour and Greer labs became beneficiaries of the Fraternal Order of Eagles through Robert Krusas, administrator of the Department of Animal Medicine at UMMS. Like all members of the Eagles’ aeries, as the thousands of local clubs in towns and cities across the U.S. and Canada are called, Rob’s commitment springs from the organization’s humble yet energizing mission statement: People Helping People.

“There is real camaraderie within the local aerie and it just seems to build the higher you go in the organization,” Krusas explained. “Fourteen years ago, a friend brought me to the Worcester club, and I was hooked.” So much so that Rob moved methodically from a position on his local aerie’s board in his first year to his current position on the national Eagles board. It will take additional steps, but he has set his sights on becoming Grand Worthy President of the organization.

Fraternal Order of Eagles Robert Krusas.jpg
Robert Krusas

Obviously, Krusas is a natural at community fundraising, and his advocacy is focused on UMass Medical School.

“From the moment I started my job here, I found the researchers and their studies to be fantastic and unbelievable, but the funding wasn’t always there,” he said. “I went to my aerie thinking, it’s too bad we can’t help out. But the Eagles told me, ‘Rob, we can, and this is how we’ll do it!’”

Through outings and raffles, breakfasts and dinners, “even when you’re crazy enough to stand out in the middle of the road, people donate,” Krusas said. Whatever amount is raised locally, the State Eagles organization can add to it within their guidelines, with the caveat that no part of the contribution is to go toward a recipient’s administrative costs.

The giving adds up: Over the last 20 years, Eagles aeries throughout Central Massachusetts have donated almost $460,000 to the Medical School’s research programs.

Community fundraising in the age of COVID-19

The Fraternal Order of Eagles’ successful fundraising model, so dependent on in-person outreach, is feeling the pinch of the pandemic. Robert Lawrence is a long-time friend of Rob Krusas’ with an even longer association with the Eagles; his father and uncle, members of the Leominster aerie, first brought a young Bob to the club’s events for children. With 42 years as a member, he is the organization’s New England past regional president and sees firsthand the decline in membership enrollment and dues as aeries closed starting in the spring.

“Clubs began to open up recently, only to be faced again with the current surge,” Lawrence said, emphasizing that the local aeries feed the national Eagles effort, not the other way around. “How can you raise money if you’re having a hard time keeping the doors open? Still, we’re doing the best we can. People helping people, that’s what it’s all about.”

“We don’t know when in-person fundraising events will come back,” said Julie Bowditch, advancement officer for community fundraising at UMMS, noting that the pandemic has called for more creativity via social media and online auctions, for example. “One upside is that with virtual events, geography is no longer a barrier to giving. It can come from anywhere the donor is.”

One aspect that will never change is the personal nature of community fundraising, which, according to Bowditch, the Fraternal Order of Eagles has perfected. “The beauty of community fundraising is that it matches people with an opportunity to give; finding a good fit that is driven by someone’s personal experiences. With time, energy and a generous network, people can make an impact in an area that is meaningful to them.”

Dr. Pazour underscores the importance of the Eagles’ interest in biomedical science, evident in their invitations to him and members of his lab to visit the aeries and talk about their work.

“It was great to visit the aerie and talk with their members," Dr. Pazour said. "It is clear that they have a commitment to changing people’s lives and a strong appreciation for the effort and time that is needed for biomedical research.”

It’s difficult to predict the particular impacts of scientific research, Dr. Greer added, but it is clear it improves quality of life. “So whether a donation to UMass Medical School is $100 or $100,000,” said Bowditch, “it supports work being done here that could reach the entire world.”