#059: Scoring for Science. The Dunk MS Fundraiser with Blake Arnet

Welcome to today’s episode where I talk with Blake Arnet, a former UCLA basketball player, about his fundraising event, Dunk MS. Blake’s mother was diagnosed with MS and passed away shortly after. He and his family initially participated in various fundraisers until Blake started the Dunk MS event a few years ago to make a larger contribution to research towards better treatment options and eventually a cure for MS.
In this interview, he talks about how his mother’s disease influenced his life choices and led him to use his athletic background for a cause that is close to his heart. The annual donations go to UCLA, which will be represented at the event by the renowned and award-winning MS researcher Prof. Dr. Rhonda Voskuhl, who is a big basketball fan herself.

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[00:00:00] Nele Handwerker: Hello, Blake, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show today and hello to the greater area of Los Angeles. You said, I think, Orange County.

[00:00:11] Blake Bernet: Yes, yes. It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

[00:00:15] Nele Handwerker: And before we start with the interview, it would be lovely if you could introduce yourself to the audience, so they know who is with me today on the show.

Introduction of Blake Arnet

[00:00:23] Blake Bernet: Of course. So yeah, I’ll give a quick highlight of myself. My name is Blake Arnett. I went to UCLA, I played basketball there. My mom was diagnosed with MS, when I was a junior in high school and unfortunately, she passed away only two years later due to MS complications. And so after that, obviously, you know, me and my family were pretty devastated. We went to walk MS and bike MS as a family. But I thought to myself, with my background in basketball, sports coaching and entrepreneurship, why don’t I create my own event from scratch and raise as much money as possible. I really had nothing to lose and so that’s where the idea of Dunk MS came to mind for me, in 2018 was our first event, and we raised $45,000 in my first year. So I knew I had something special here. And so ever, ever since then, and ever since my mom passed, um, finding a cure for MS and helping those affected by the disease, is my life mission. And I’m not going to stop until we find a cure and I’ll give more details as we get along here, but yeah.

[00:01:32] Nele Handwerker: It’s really great and it’s a very, very successful start. But let’s dive a little bit into the history, why you got motivated.

Experiences as the Son of an MS Patient

When was your mom diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and what led to it?

[00:01:47] Blake Bernet: Yeah, so in 2007, when I was a junior in high school, it came out of the blue. She worked in the medical field. So she was a pharmaceutical sales rep and also had a nursing career. And so, you know, she knew that field. And so we hadn’t heard about MS until she got diagnosed. And so that’s obviously a new thing and a shock to the family. So we learned a lot, you know, that year that she was diagnosed.

Did she have any previous symptoms that, in retrospect, were related to multiple sclerosis?

[00:02:22] Blake Bernet: Not that I recall. But when she did get diagnosed, it was a pretty dramatic difference. So she, I always tell the story, she used to drive fast on the freeway. And then, you know, as her diagnosis happened and as the year even went on, she couldn’t drive anymore. The doctors, her neurologist, told her she couldn’t drive. Obviously, as you all know, losing her cognitive skills, lesions in her brain, a lot of pain. She ended up being somewhat mobile, but in a walker most of the time. Luckily, not a wheelchair, but there was definitely a sharp decline there. I would have to take her to her doctor appointments when I was home for the summer or on weekends. Obviously, the family helped out there as well. Yeah, pretty fast decline, unfortunately, that we saw.

[00:03:14] Nele Handwerker: Okay, which is normally not happening that often. But yeah, unfortunately, it seemed to happen for your mom.

How were you feeling about the diagnosis and what was it like for your mom and other family members?

[00:03:27] Blake Bernet: Yeah, yeah, good question. It was tough, right, it was all new. So, we’re all trying to figure out what this disease was, right. I was only 17, 18 years old, I didn’t have the full context as, you know, a grown adult, like I am today. But I know my stepdad, my dad, my sister and our family tried to just understand what the disease was, get out in the community, learn about it. Learned from her, from her doctors as well. I know at the… Back then I did… The medications a lot better today, but back in 2007 and 2009, I remember she was taking I want to say 10 to 15 pills a day for MS. And eventually had a pain patch that I know that she wore towards the end of her life. So, I know talking to a lot of MS warriors today, the medication is a lot more effective and better, which is great to hear, which is what Dunk MS, which is what we help fund is research to find a cure.

[00:04:25] Nele Handwerker: Yes, and I had already some members from UCLA and am waiting for some others to interview.

[00:04:33] Blake Bernet: Nice.

[00:04:34] Nele Handwerker: Yeah, I think they really are good in MS research.

How did the MS develop and what led to her death?

[00:04:50] Blake Bernet: Yeah, no, it was what we were told from the doctors, and I think the state, or the county is… Just kind of kept it simple, I guess, was just MS complications. We don’t know if it was a mix of the medications along with the pain patch or the dose of the pain patch was too high. We tried to look into it after she had passed, but at least in the US, it’s hard to bring any case legally against a doctor and it’s just, it’s pretty complicated. So, it was one of those things that you kind of have to deal with, to live with, to kind of pray about and just know that she’s in a better place and not in pain anymore. You know, that at least helped me get through things over time. So unfortunately, not a great or detailed answer.

[00:05:42] Nele Handwerker: Okay, yeah. So, let’s talk a bit more about the positive things, about your Dunk MS fundraising event for MS Research.

Dunk MS - Fundraising Event for MS Research

When did you decide to start a fundraising campaign based on your own experiences with your mom's MS?

[00:06:21] Blake Bernet: Yeah, yeah, that’s the hardest part, was actually doing it. No, so yeah, so she passed in 2009. Before we had done Walk MS, Bike MS for years after that, right, 2010, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. And I just, you know, we’re doing these events, we’re raising maybe a couple thousand dollars as a family. I just thought to myself, after all these years, you know, my mom was my best friend, I want to do more.

And so, with my entrepreneur’s background, I thought of what is a unique event that hasn’t been done before, that me myself have the unique ability to do in my spare time, right? I work in the startup world, but can I do something in my spare time? And so, I thought the idea really kind of came to me in 2017. 

I took about a year to research how to create a charity event. I made connections in the MS community at UCLA Health, MS Society, asked them kind of some tips and some pointers and just kind of formulated my idea. So, the event on a high level for the audience to understand, it’s a kids basketball clinic for about an hour and a half. 

During that kid’s clinic, we have sponsor tables, raffle prizes, virtual sound auction. We have an orange carpet and a kind of a photo booth. We have free food, a DJ. The goal is to make it a fun event for not just kids, who like basketball, but for adults, for people, who do not have kids, for the MS community.

And then the main event, though, is the pro dunk show. So, I get pro dunkers to come out and do an amazing dunk show for the whole crowd to watch. I also have an MS doctor speak at the event to educate the crowd as well. Dr. Voskuhl, who is a world-renowned MS researcher at UCLA Health, has been with us from day one. She usually comes to the event and speaks. 

We have our host interview her. It’s really a mix of sports, MS community and just a fun family event. So, so yeah, I kind of formulated all that for a year and made it happen in 2018, as our first year.

[00:08:35] Nele Handwerker: Fantastic. Yes, I saw Rhonda Voskuhl at ECTRIMS, in Milan, last year and I want to have her on the show regarding menopause. Yes, so I’m still trying to get her on menopause and MS, chasing her.

[00:08:56] Blake Bernet: I can do an email intro for you two. Yeah, we’ve become friends over the years and she’s great.

[00:09:02] Nele Handwerker: Yes, and Damian mentions that she is a big basketball fan when I had him on the interview. Fantastic.

How many donations have you collected so far and forwarded to UCLA for research purposes? And can you tell us more about the upcoming event?

[00:09:23] Blake Bernet: Yeah, we’ve raised a total of over 250,000 in our first four years, or five years now. At first, the money was going to MS Society, Cedars-Sinai and UCLA Health. I had to decide, as we were growing. Let me choose one main partner and give you the bulk of our donations there. After, I believe, year two, it was only UCLA Health. So, I know we’ve given over, I want to say, 75,000 directly to Dr. Voskuhl and her world-renowned MS research program. And our goal this year is to raise over $100,000.

[00:10:12] Nele Handwerker: Fingers crossed.

[00:10:13] Blake Bernet: That’s the goal here.

[00:10:18] Nele Handwerker: That’s really a lot, especially coming from Germany, you know,  where fundraising is not that popular, unfortunately. I mean, government is taking more care of things, you know, so it’s just a different situation. But of course, it would be good if fundraising plays a bigger role and society is trying to start it a bit more.

[00:10:40] Blake Bernet: Maybe we get Dunk MS out there in Switzerland or Germany.

[00:10:44] Nele Handwerker: Yeah, probably we would need to switch it to soccer. Because it’s more popular, but basketball is popular as well.

Who would benefit most from attending this event, and what can participants expect in terms of activities and engagement?

[00:11:06] Blake Bernet: Yeah, good question. It’s again a mix. So, obviously, like the basketball community, kids who play basketball and people, who like basketball, right to watch the dunkers. But I also want to make sure that the MS community feels welcome, and they don’t have to like basketball to come to our events. Like I mentioned, we have sponsor tables, we have kind of free sponsor giveaways, we have a wellness center. This is where… Yeah, we have free massages for everyone. We have one of our sponsors is doing a little kind of fitness area. And then a new thing this year that I’m adding in, that we’re in talks right now, as a team is, I’m calling it the MS Community Zone. We’re going to have a private room and space for the MS community to connect with each other, to learn from each other and to feel a sense of community. And so I’m going to have an MS influencer or two who lead that kind of discussion and have everyone who attends that part of the event to feel welcome and just connect on a personal level. So I think that I’ve learned that people want that. And so outside of the DJ and the loud noise, they can go into a nice quiet room and connect with each other.

[00:12:23] Nele Handwerker: That’s good. Yes, very popular here as well. People want to talk to others, because then you don’t feel so lonely and you don’t feel lonely with your problems, your issues. And maybe you can share some things, how you can overcome hurdles. Also, yeah, yeah, yeah, makes totally sense.

How do you balance the informational and fun aspects of the event to cater to a diverse audience?

[00:12:47] Blake Bernet: Yeah, that’s always a tricky part, right? I can’t go too much on either side. It has to be in the middle of it. What I do is, I have our host interview Dr. Voskuhl and other UCLA MS doctors in the middle of the event. And so I’ll have the kids clinic, we’ll do water breaks for the kids, DJ will dim the music and then we’ll have our hosts say, hey everyone, pay attention, we’re going to learn about MS.

And we have a world-renowned doctor, Dr. Voskuhl here. And then she interviews her for about five to 10 minutes in front of the whole crowd. And so we’ll ask her, you know, can you explain what MS is? Because we can’t assume everyone at the event knows what MS is. And so we have kind of general questions. We ask her, what is the detailed research at UCLA Health? Like the funds from this event, how does it help you in your program?

And so we have that for the entire crowd. Again, it can’t be too long, where it’s kind of dragged out, but I think it’s important to have it, obviously, because that is why we are here. Right, it’s important to understand why we’re all here at the event and where the funds are going to. And then on top of that, like I mentioned, now we have the MS community zone for the MS community kind of during the event by themselves go and connect and learn outside of the basketball clinic. So that’s how I can balance things out there.

[00:14:07] Nele Handwerker: Yeah, sounds good. And of course, it would be very helpful if people just get diagnosed early on, because then you can do way more than, I don’t know, getting diagnosed 10 years into the disease. So it’s important and if people just have it in the back of their mind. Connected with some fun aspects of seeing people doing amazing dunkings. I mean, I watched your YouTube channel or the YouTube videos, I don’t know if it’s a whole channel. But it was fun to watch and it’s always nice if you have the combination of something positive and something informative.

[00:14:46] Blake Bernet: Yes, yes.

Looking back at previous years, how has the event been received by attendees and what memorable moments stand out to you?

[00:14:55] Blake Bernet: Yeah, I’ve got a lot of great feedback. There’s really no event like this, to my knowledge, in the world, that has a kind of charity dunk show mixed with, you know, MS community and a kid’s clinic. And so I’m really honored that I get so much help every year to make this event happen. It’s like a dream come true for me every year. And so it’s a very unique event, nothing like it in the world. And then, sorry, what was the second part of the question?

[00:15:22] Nele Handwerker: Maybe if you can, I don’t know, share some memorable moments or a story.

[00:15:30] Blake Bernet: Yeah, yeah. So on the MS side, I didn’t know this. There are a few kind of MS influencers on Instagram that are in the LA or California, Southern California area. And they know each other, they follow each other on Instagram, but they had never met in person. A lot of them have met at Dunk MS two years ago and now have become friends in real life. And so it was really cool for me to hear that. It’s kind of like a MS networking event as well. And now the friendships have been made from that. So that was a really special thing that I heard.

Wishes and goals

Are there any specific MS projects at UCLA that are particularly close to your heart and that you would like to support?

[00:16:16] Blake Bernet: I would say just really, honestly, Dr. Voskuhl, she, I trust her 100%. Her work speaks for itself, she gets amazing multi-million-dollar grants, you know, right, and she is, as you know, world renowned, she speaks across the world. She is, I’ve gotten to know over the years and kind of hear some detail on how she’s doing things with MS research. And yeah, she’s, all of our donation eggs are in her basket. So, I trust what she does 100%.

Reflecting on the potential impact of the research funded, what are your hopes for the future of MS treatment and patient care?

[00:17:03] Blake Bernet: Just that it’s easier for, you know, for people, you know, living with MS. I saw it firsthand, obviously. I know this was a while ago and I know it’s better. But just, you know, I hate to see people in pain, and I know they call MS kind of an invisible disease sometimes, because you don’t really, you know, there’s different stages. But yeah, just people to not be in pain.

As someone directly affected by MS through your family and now actively contributing to research, what message do you want to share with others who might be in a similar situation or considering supporting MS research?

[00:17:42] Blake Bernet: Yeah, yeah, sure. You’re asking kind of a message to MS Warriors or anyone who wants to donate?

[00:17:49] Nele Handwerker: Yes, warriors and maybe other family members, who want to become active and support MS research.

[00:17:56] Blake Bernet: Yeah, yeah, I would say if you have an idea, I’d say do the research, get a team, don’t do it by yourself and research and go for it. People want to help, especially the MS community. If you can connect with others in that community, whatever that means or whatever means to get there, I think it’s worth it. If it’s something you care about and it’s a family member or a friend, I know they’ll be very grateful for your help. And I think that’s what life’s about, is helping people. And so, if you have the willpower and you want to help, go for it. Donate, help start an event, volunteer on an event, support us at Dunk MS, support your local chapter, wherever you are. And if we all do that, there’s going to be a lot of progress, I think.

[00:18:48] Nele Handwerker: Absolutely. And that’s what happened in the past.

Quickfire Q&A Session

Complete the sentence: "For me, multiple sclerosis is...."

[00:19:14] Blake Bernet: Is a huge part of my life, as I help find a cure for it.

Which website can you recommend for people living with MS?

[00:19:27] Blake Bernet: The National MS Society and Dunk MS.

Finally, what message of hope or encouragement would you like to share with individuals living with MS?

[00:19:44] Blake Bernet: I would say whatever you’re doing, at least for me, you inspire me and the people who have a chronic illness that it’s not their fault, right? You’re living every day with this disease. You’re doing the best you can. That is inspiring to me. I don’t know how… what I would do if I was in their shoes and so I feel privileged and blessed and honored to be, to have the things I have and the health that I have, I try not to take that for granted, because I’ve seen it firsthand, you know, go very wrong um. So, you all inspire me every day and a lot of others too, so just keep living, keep doing the best you can and we’re all thinking about you.


How and where can interested people find you and your event online?

[00:20:45] Blake Bernet: Great question. At dunkms.com. Everything is there, the event background, all our videos, information, tickets, if you want to just donate. We have a virtual sound auction, so anyone across the world can join and just simply buy a free virtual ticket for our event. And then you can also participate in our virtual sound auction, and we’ll ship anything directly to you.

[00:21:12] Nele Handwerker: And when is it happening this year, actually?

[00:21:15] Blake Bernet: Yes, it is Saturday, May 18th 2024.

[00:21:18] Nele Handwerker: And if people listen to that podcast later, you will keep on doing it every May or?

[00:21:26] Blake Bernet: That is the goal, yes, to do every, at least, if not May, at least in the springtime every year, at UCLA.

[00:21:33] Nele Handwerker: And people can always go to that website and find the most recent events there.

[00:21:40] Blake Bernet: Correct. Yeah. We’re on all social media as well, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Dunk MS.

[00:21:49] Nele Handwerker: Okay, and I will put everything in the show notes. Because, you know, as with podcasts, it can happen, people listen to our episode two months too late for this year. And they might want to join the event in 2025. Who knows?

[00:22:08] Blake Bernet: Yeah, that would be great. 

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