Artists and Athletes Put Talents to Work for Disaster Relief

Tom Daley

From custom kicks to pop hits, three creators raise the bar on raising funds to serve Americans in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

What do custom sneakers, a hit song, and 4,115 pullups have in common? They are all among the unusual ways people have raised money for communities affected by disaster. The donors responsible for those feats— Aaron Saroken, Alyssa Kayhill, and Ryan Murphy—are among the 30,200 individuals who supported Team Rubicon’s mission and gave more than $7.8 million in 2020. By combining their skills and passions with the desire to help others, each came up with one-of-a-kind fundraisers to put more disasters responders into the field to serve vulnerable communities. Here is a look at three unique individuals and how they used their creativity to fuel disaster relief.   

Raising the Pullup Bar

In 2019, Ryan Murphy left his job on Wall Street to try out for the Navy SEALs. When he wasn’t selected, Murphy found another way to serve: A GoFundMe campaign called “Pullups for Veterans,” in which he did 4,115 pullups in 13 hours and 13 minutes while livestreaming the event on Instagram. Ultimately, Murphy raised $20,100 dollars which he donated to Team Rubicon. 

Q: When did you decide to leave your career on Wall Street to try out for the Navy SEALs?

A: I realized back in 2016 that I wanted to make the jump to the Navy SEALs. I came to this realization just a few months after graduating from the University of Virginia, at which point I was already working on Wall Street. However, at that time I wasn’t ready to handle the physical demands of the program because I’d recently undergone several surgeries. So, I kept working on Wall Street for the next three years and during that time I rehabbed my body and undertook an intensive training program. Then I applied to the Navy SEAL officer program. I got accepted to the final round tryout, and I left my job to attend the tryout.

Ryan Murphy doing his pullups for veterans.

Q: When you were not selected for the SEALs training course, what did you redirect your energy to instead?

A: When I first got word that I hadn’t been selected, I was devastated. Joining the community meant a lot to me, and I had put a lot into the process. But I was most devastated because I had grown so close to many of the other candidates during the process, and I knew they would be going through extraordinary hardship during BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training and later in deployments. Not being selected meant I wouldn’t be able to be there for them.

So, my immediate reaction was to figure out a way that I could support them and the military at large from the civilian side. That’s what led to the fundraiser.

Q: Where did you get the idea for Pullups for Veterans?

A: Funny enough, it happened by chance. I knew I wanted to do something unique, so running was out. But I didn’t have any ideas. Then one day I happened to hear that David Goggins, a former Navy SEAL, endurance athlete, and author, had done 4,030 pullups in 17 hours, which I thought was an insane number. The next day I went to the gym and did an hour of pullups. It was hard, but I thought “I could do that.” So, that day I committed to beating his mark.

Q: Why did you choose Team Rubicon to be the beneficiary of your fundraiser?

A: I was introduced to Team Rubicon by my former boss at a hedge fund on Wall Street. He’s a big supporter of the military and has contributed to Team Rubicon over the years.

At his suggestion, I looked into the organization and was immediately impressed with the all the work they are doing. I was really focused on mental health because many people in my life struggle with it, and those struggles are exacerbated in the military communities which deal with unique traumas. I thought it was really smart how Team Rubicon created an environment for veterans to find purpose, identity, and utility once they leave the service.

Q: How does it feel to have received so much support from your community?

A: I feel incredibly, incredibly, grateful for all of the support I got in this. Amazingly, we had around 200 donors. I could not be more grateful to them all.

As a community, we all came to recognize both how much our service members do for us and how much they need our support. I was just able to give people a channel to support them and a funny Instagram livestream to watch along the way. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better outcome. It was all of these supporters that made the fundraiser a success. 

Put Your Money Where Your Kicks Are

At 11 years old, Aaron Saroken turned his love for sneakers into a small business to raise money for charity. He hand-decorates pairs of sneakers, combining his distinctive design style with themes requested by customers. Since last spring, Saroken has been donating half the proceeds from his company, Saroken’s Kustom Kicks, to Team Rubicon and, to date, has raised more than $500. 

Q: When did you decide to start Saroken’s Kustom Kicks?

A: I have been focused on trying to help others ever since my nursery school class made sandwiches to feed people who lost their homes during Hurricane Sandy. Additionally, the 3rd grade “invention convention” at my school made me realize that I also wanted to be an entrepreneur and have my own business. At the start of the COVID crisis last spring, I realized that I could combine both of these desires along with my love of art and sneakers. That’s how the idea for Saroken’s Kustom Kicks was born.   

Aaron Saroken with a family friend and a pair of Saroken’s Kustom Kicks.

Q: Who are the artists and designers that you look up to?

A: I have a tremendous amount of respect for many of the “real” sneaker designers, but my favorite is Dillon DeJesus (@dejesuscustomfootwear). I also think the YouTuber ZHC is amazing—he has customized everything from phones to a house and is incredibly talented. 

Q: What are some of your favorite designs that you have made?

A: I have designed more than 50 pairs of sneakers at this point and the fact that each is unique makes it hard to pick a favorite. But as an avid sports fan, I would say team logos are always really fun. Though it’s painful when, as a loyal New York sports fan, I have to do the Red Sox and the Patriots!

Q: Why did you decide to start donating part of your proceeds to Team Rubicon?

A: I found the concept of utilizing the amazing skills of veterans and first responders to help disaster victims unique and compelling—like a two-for-one where you can help veterans find a sense of identity and purpose as they transition back to being civilians, while also providing support to people struggling as the result of various disasters.

Q: Can we expect to see you in a grey shirt when you’re old enough?

A: As if you have to ask! While I am really enjoying my business and love that I am able to help support Team Rubicon’s initiatives from afar, I can’t wait until I am old enough to put on a grey shirt and help out in person. I am so glad that I can do my small part now to help Team Rubicon by donating 50% of my profits from Saroken’s Kustom Kicks, but there is no substitute for donating time and being able to volunteer in person. So, you will definitely see me out in the field once I turn 18.

Serving with Song

Alyssa Kayhill is a New York-based singer-songwriter and an interventional cardiology nurse who stepped away from that work to serve as an ICU nurse for a few months at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, she witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the struggle of the medical community to save lives. Kayhill just released a new single titled “Fighting” inspired by her experience, and she is donating all the proceeds from the song to Team Rubicon.

Q: When did you start making music?

A: Music has been in my life from as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a house where an eclectic mix of music—from Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix—was always playing. I started writing my own music as a teenager but having the opportunity to work in a studio about 10 years ago hooked me. Working in a creative space with other musicians and producers feels like an extension of home.

Q: Where did you find inspiration for writing your song “Fighting”?

A: During the height of COVID-19, I was working as an ICU nurse in Brooklyn, and I was overwhelmed with so many emotions. Writing became a necessity and a cathartic release. “Fighting” was inspired by the events of 2020 with a focus on watching people and communities come together to help one another. Despite all the heartache, fear, and challenges, this was a time where people had to rely on kindness, acceptance, and generosity to push through. “I know that you’ll be there, I promise I’ll be there…fighting,” are the initial lyrics that came from my experiences.

Nurse and singer-songwriter Alyssa Kahill performing live before the coronavirus pandemic.

Q: As a nurse, how has the fight against COVID-19 changed your life?

A: When you are faced with a crisis such as COVID, it forces change. I met patients who changed my perspective on life within minutes of meeting them. I encountered healthcare workers doing everything in their power to keep patients alive when they didn’t even have the means to do so. People from all over donated food and masks, wrote cards, cheered from the street, and showed tremendous love and support. These are moments that shape you as an individual and I have an enormous sense of gratitude for everyone who came together for the greater good of others. I’m honored to have been a firsthand witness to this in the hospital but also as a New Yorker.

Q: Why did you choose to donate the proceeds from your song to Team Rubicon?

A: Witnessing the impact of relief efforts during COVID has been truly inspiring. Team Rubicon shows up and provides relief when people need it most. They are also close to my heart because a large portion of the team is made up of military veterans. My grandfather was so proud to have served in World War II. He believed in the importance of serving others and passed that belief on to me. Donating the proceeds from my song to Team Rubicon is my way of saying “thank you” to people who choose to make a difference.

Looking to launch your own creative custom fundraiser? Here’s how to turn your passion into support for disaster relief.

Want your own one-of-a-kind sneakers? Visit Aaron Saroken’s Instagram page @sarokenskustomkicks and send a DM.

Listen to Alyssa Kayhill’s new single “Fighting” on any of the major music platforms, including Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Amazon Music, and more.

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