Every year, Dragon Con raises money for local Atlanta organizations and charities as well as attendees donating blood. This year, broken records lay in waste with $100,000 for the Atlanta Community Food Bank and over 3,000 blood donators.
The real, solid beauty of Dragon Con isn’t the glitz and glamour.
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It’s not the celebrity guests or the amazing chance to take a picture with said celebrity.
The beauty of the convention is the fact you will run into so many amazing people—fans, just like you, who want to create a kinder world.
You’ll find shared connections. And sometimes it’s outside the realm of fandom. Maybe it's sharing a table in an overcrowded food court. Or a waiting in line for MARTA to come along. Experiences are beyond those badged events. It's simply a mutual appreciation of the overall weekend you witness together.
Other moments may happen when rooming with random strangers. After all, cons aren't cheap and by Sunday, it's down to counting pennies. Saving money can mean creating a unique family for the Labor Day weekend.
Rooming with strangers, meeting strangers at the mall food court, or chatting up a random person at a panel offers a lot of opportunities to experience the convention through new eyes. And build a community.
Community is the base line for fan-run Dragon Con.
We all belong, in that moment, to a very large community of attendees for many different reasons. In fact, the tag line for the con says, "We are the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film."
For those who don't know that Dragon Con isn't just for us sci-fi nerds. You need to add gaming with real prizes ($15,000 handed out this year), a small film festival, academic conference, writing advice (several tracks), concerts, and anything else you can think of wanting to find. There's a lot to do, and this year over 66,000 people joined the chance to mingle and geek out.
(You don't have to be a guest to see the parade that takes up some serious Peachtree Street real estate for two hours.)
I mentioned the community's run entirely by fans, and other than the board, it is.
This year 2,350 volunteered put this convention together—which means 2,350 fans did not get paid for attending mandatory meetings in town. A deep well of community means something to volunteers if they're running a large convention for nothing more than a free badge.
For those volunteers not in charge of tracks (think Skeptics, Brit media, Anne McCaffery, etc), a free badge comes after volunteering 20 hours for the convention. Since the con runs Friday-Monday, that's a significant portion of time spent to make sure everyone's experiences are amazing.
Charity helps to combine fans into a community. And charity is not a bad word—instead it's a moment of empathy and kindness. Of acknowledgement that sometimes life just plain sucks and needing help isn’t something to be ashamed of.
Every year, the convention holds a blood drive, where the wait time may be up to 2 hours long. That's the equivalent of two major panels, if you cut out the long lines around buildings.
In 2013, the Robert A. Heinlein "Pay It Forward" Blood Drive had 2,972 donors and collected 7,544 units of blood throughout the weekend. And through partner LifeSouth, the blood will reach over 110 hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Look at the lives saved in the region. (Not to mention the free t-shirt you get for donating your blood with a Dragon Con design.)
But the blood drive isn't the only way to donate. At the main charity auction, fans raise money to contribute to the main charity of the year. The main charity (or charities) changes yearly. In 2013, the $87,000 donation ended up split between Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary, Georgia Conservancy, and the Marcus Autism Center.
And 2014's donations will go to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Food's important, especially for children and elderly. My hometown's huge and every Thanksgiving Hosea Feed the Hungry has lines around the block. It's not just from the economy, either. It's simply life in America for many people.
Dragon Con held the auction emceed by Chuck Campbell, but they also collected food goods to delivery directly to the bank.
Some of the requested items included dried beans, oatmeal, shelf stable milk, canned fish, veggie juice, and cooking oils. Each of those items provide nutrients many people simply can't maintain when living in unstable situations. Paper products, diapers, and toiletries are always needed as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) does not consider these essential. (Which is another story entirely because toilet paper and diapers are pretty necessary for keeping areas clean from human waste.)
A few facts to explain the importance of the money raised this year.
Stats show 19.2% of all Georgians are living in poverty and food insecure households. Two years ago, I was one of those people. Barely scrapping by and feeding two adults on all meals for $50 a week. That sounds like a lot, but break it down to 42 meals a week and on a minuscule budget. It's not easy. I never had to go to food bank because I turned toward my family and begged for help, but I was very close.
And for every dollar donated, the ACFB distributes grocery products worth $9.21. That's huge need weighing on local food banks, because that's only one of many. We have over 4 million people in the metro area. The disparity is very real in the area with many people looking for options to stay healthy.
During the 2012-2013 Fiscal Year, ACFB donated 45 million pounds of needed products and that was up from 37 million the year before. Those figures are very important because it means so many people had food on their tables and a portion of the 27.2% of poverty-stricken children in the state had a little food on the table.
For the next generation to grow, there needs to be a solid foundation. Food fuels us all.
There's something to be said when a charity division collects over $311,000 in 6 years for local charities. The donations do not help out, say, some organization in Phoenix or rural New York. All money stays around Atlanta. And the Stargate track has raised $100,000 of that alone in the same time frame.
In 2008, Don S. Davis passed away from a heart attack not long before the convention. Not only was the actor an integral part of Stargate SG-1, but an advocate for soldiers after serving in Vietnam. He also held a PhD in Theater. Connecting with Davis on a fan level was absolutely a joy because he genuinely loved attending the convention and interacting with passionate fans who saw the value in everything put into a production.
So when the Stargate’s impromptu auction in his honor earned $2,600, the next year’s auction seemed a no-brainer. And 2009 saw the track raise $10,000. Raising $2,600 to $100,000 in just a few short years shows the dedication of not only a fan base, but of people in general.
I asked Jen Breland, the Director of Charity of Events, why the congoers contribute so much—why do people willingly give so much money and time to people they will probably never meet. She believes because congoers have been "the outcasts" in society at some point, they understand the difficult moments in asking for help.
Breland’s knowledge comes from being the Stargate track director for five years, as well as simply being a fan. This year marked her 13th anniversary of attending the convention. As the former Stargate charity event planner, it’s easy to see why Dragon Con pulled her into the role of Charity of Events.
Knowledge, persuasion, and empathy definitely helped uplift the Davis auction into a high level of distinction. And since Dragon Con was willing to match up to $50,000, Breland was the absolutely perfect fit to offer help to those in need.
Money's raised through a bunch of connected auctions, so there's an art show, celebrity signed items, challenges, track specific auctions, and simple donations cans on track tables. Donations don't come from just the big ticket items.
Charity and kindness come from so much more when almost $100,000 was raised for the Atlanta Community Food Bank and over 3,000 people donated blood, which broke the partnership's record of donors.
And all this doesn't count the latest initiative: Dragon Con Superheroes. Officially, Superheroes is "a community service project team for our members, volunteers, and staff" that "loves a good reason to get together outside of Labor Day weekend."
Co-chair, Rachel Reeves, said it best: "Dragon Con people are a family."
And what do you do when family needs you? Help out.
One of the superhero projects this year included helping to clear out Sweetwater Creek State Park's waste and overgrowth, to provide an area of serenity and nature. It's also the 1967 founding place of the Georgia Conservancy, the group who worked with the Superheroes. Located 20 minutes outside of Atlanta, volunteers contributed 225 service hours while the convention itself donated $1,000.
"One team of 44 Superheroes walked the one-mile course at Piedmont Park on April 26th while the other, some of whom were dressed in costume, worked the final water station and greeted walkers as they crossed the finish line in Dragon Con style."
Anyone who has seen the parade knows the importance of ending in style.
"Some 44 individuals who raised nearly $11,000 for the Lupus Foundation, ranked in the top 5 teams in terms of money raised."
All these moments, these contributions, of seeing a community in need is what truly represents Dragon Con. Sometimes it's finding a place for someone who wants to attend the con and simply couldn't afford a room deposit right away. (After all, the Hyatt Regency sold out 3 days after the 2014 convention.)
Other times, it's a celebrity giving a signed item to raise some money for the charity auctions. But mostly the biggest contribution is the way volunteers and congoers get together and help those in need locally—to take the stress off over-burdened shoulders, even if only just for a moment.
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And kindness is the true, unsung beauty of Dragon Con.