Where can you see someone in a glitzy ball gown, sitting next to someone else in a bedazzled baseball cap, with daubers in their hands and tears misting in their eyes between rounds of bingo? It’s Blingo Bingo, and there’s nothing else like it.
On a warm August evening, over 600 guests filled the Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato. Some were dressed in head-to-toe sparkles, while others preferred to make a subtle statement with a diamond here and a pearl there. What everyone had in common, though, was the mission to ensure cancer patients felt supported and loved throughout their cancer journey.
Blingo Bingo is an event like no other—it perfectly balances the difficult topic of cancer with the fun and chance of a bingo game. The evening is electric as guests play for a chance to win a piece of jewelry, with the proceeds from each bingo card supporting the Jonathan Zierdt (JZ) Cancer Fund.
The JZ Cancer Fund is a designated fund of the Mankato Area Foundation (MAF) established in 2017 by Jonathan and Ginger Zierdt. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013, Jonathan was inspired to build community cancer awareness and support to change the cancer journey for patients in Southern Minnesota. He passed away in 2019; however, his memory lives on through the many programs supported by the fund.
“The origin of the Jonathan Zierdt Cancer Fund is rooted in the quest to change the cancer journey for survivors and caregivers,” said Ginger. “At the heart of the change is the engagement of one’s own community—community committed to not only providing support and essential resources for one’s journey, but being an extension of care, compassion and hope. The fund is uniquely positioned to help catalyze and champion these extraordinary endeavors.”
One of the many programs the JZ Cancer Fund provides is the JZ Caring Box Program, which provides over 1,000 boxes annually to Southern Minnesota residents upon receiving a cancer diagnosis. The JZ Caring Box is given to patients by their physicians or care team, who select just the right time to give a patient their box to help lift their spirits and let them know they are not alone. The packages were designed to include useful items and materials that a patient may need during this time—a blanket to keep warm, a cookbook to promote healthy eating through treatment, a journal to help process and reflect on their experience and a gift card to cover travel expenses to doctor appointments and treatments.
On the outside of the box reads “Fully Alive.” It’s a message that conveys to the recipient that they are still here, and there is hope. “Fully Alive” is truly embodied at Blingo Bingo. It’s an electric evening full of humor, celebration and life.
Blingo Bingo celebrated its second year this summer, and it was clear the event would eclipse its already successful inauguration.
It’s a difficult task to walk the line between lightheartedness and reverence for cancer survivors and those who were lost to cancer—but Blingo Bingo does just that. The evening began with an introduction from Maureen Gustafson, the event’s architect and MAF’s Donor Relations and Programs Director. Not only did she rally the audience together for an evening of fun, but she clearly and poignantly explained exactly what the evening was about.
Then, the event was taken over by two emcees, Michelle Schooff and Jean Ann Hastings, who kept the audience’s attention with quippy banter, unexpected costume changes and energy that could only have been summoned by a case of Red Bulls backstage.
Each round of bingo was precluded by a video of the bingo caller—all of whom were cancer survivors or someone whose life was touched by cancer. The callers recounted their experience of being diagnosed, receiving support throughout their treatment or walking the cancer journey side by side with family members. The video would end, leaving the crowd with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes. Then, an eruption of applause as that same person on the video walks out on stage—fully alive—to call the next game of bingo.
Each lucky winner met cheers and fanfare as they danced up to claim their prize. The evening continued round after joyous round—a perfect juxtaposition of the experience of a cancer patient, the impact of the JZ Cancer Fund, the celebration of lives lost and those who will keep on living.
With over 600 guests in attendance and amazing support from community partners, this year’s Blingo Bingo raised over $90,000. But beyond the dollars raised, it’s clear that Blingo Bingo does so much more. It provides a space for community, for support and to honor those wanting to live fully alive.