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Coleman’s telethon work a longtime labor of love

May. 21, 2015, 10:02 AM

Tuwanda Coleman has been producing the annual Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Telethon for more than 30 years.

Not long after Tuwanda Coleman started her career as a TV producer at WTVF-NewsChannel 5 more than 30 years ago, she was given an assignment that was different from the typical minutes-long news segment.

Her task was to help put on a 21-hour-long broadcast. It was the annual Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals (CMN) Telethon, a fundraising effort benefiting Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“I was thinking ‘How am I going to make the phones ring when nobody is watching us?’” Coleman said. “I knew it was my job, though, to make the show as entertaining and informative as possible. I had to make the show just as good and entertaining at 3 a.m. as it was at 8 a.m. — on the slight chance someone was watching and wanted to give.”

That first telethon three decades ago started Coleman down a path that has found her at the center of the event each year, spending hundreds of hours of her time to make the event a success.

Children’s Hospital is one of the 20 founding CMN hospitals, which was formed in 1983 and is the only national fundraising effort that pledges 100 percent of all locally raised money goes to local member hospitals.

The money raised goes toward the Children’s Fund, which supports the hospital’s research, specialized equipment, patient programs and other important efforts. This year, the event will take place on Sunday, June 7.

Over the time Coleman and NewsChannel 5 have been involved, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Telethon has grown from raising $100,000 each year to $2 million.

During the 31 years Coleman and NewsChannel 5 have been involved, the telethon has grown from typically raising about $100,000 per year to $2 million in 2014.

Throughout the TV broadcast, the station highlights inspiring stories from patients and families at Children’s Hospital. NewsChannel 5’s on-air personalities also spend time interviewing Children’s Hospital officials, faculty and staff while viewers call, text, or go online to make donation pledges.

“There’s so many great things taking place at the hospital,” Coleman said. “It’s my job to tell people what sets this hospital apart.”

While the event itself happens on just one day each year, for Coleman, who is a reporter and producer for the TV station’s “Talk of the Town” show, the work to prepare for the telethon starts nearly a year in advance.

“My job throughout the year leading up to the telethon is to make sure I get the word out about all the great things at Children’s Hospital and also help to raise funds throughout the year,” Coleman said.

As the date of the event draws closer, Coleman starts putting into place her plans to maximize the time she has to reach viewers and potential donors.

“The actual month or two leading up to the telethon is what I consider my crunch time,” Coleman said. “That’s when I think about the seven hours that I have to reach the goal, and we always want to best the previous year.”

Part of that process is adding fresh ways to provide valuable content that entertains and keeps the phones ringing, she said.

“The hospital is depending on me, the station is depending on me and the children are depending on me,” Coleman said. “So it’s a lot of pressure.”

Last year marked the 30th anniversary of the telethon partnership between Children’s Hospital and NewsChannel 5. The station donates approximately $150,000 in production value annually, which equates to $4.5 million over the years.

NewsChannel 5’s Tuwanda Coleman, right, with Marie Osmond after Coleman was named the CMN TV Person of the Year for 2014

Lyn Plantinga, general manager at NewsChannel 5, said the longstanding commitment demonstrates how much the station values Children’s Hospital.

“We believe at NewsChannel 5 that Children’s Hospital is very important to this community,” Plantinga said. “We believe it’s important economically. It’s a prestigious institution that gives recognition to the community. And most importantly, we believe that Children’s Hospital saves lives.”

Plantinga said the telethon is one of the best ways to bring attention to the good work being done at Vanderbilt.

“We see our commitment to the telethon to be two-prong,” Plantinga said. “On one hand, we’re helping raise cash. The other thing we’re doing is to raise awareness. There may be people who see the telethon who don’t give a penny, but it makes them aware that this is something that is available here in our community.”

John W. Brock III, M.D., Monroe Carell Jr. Professor, surgeon-in-chief of Children’s Hospital and director of the Division of Pediatric Urology, said the hospital’s relationship with the TV station has been a tremendous benefit.

“We have been fortunate over the past three decades to have a partner in NewsChannel 5 for the annual telethon,” Brock said. “The station’s involvement and generous dedication of programming hours has been critical to the success of the event. This is in no small part to the passion that Tuwanda Coleman has exhibited for this project. It has been an absolute pleasure every year to see her smiling face and feel the energy that she exudes in moving this event forward.”

In the early years of the telethon, the segments focused largely on stories about patients.
But as the use of medical technology has grown, those advancements have featured prominently in the telethons, Plantinga said.

“There are so many medical advancements to be highlighted,” Plantinga said. “There are so many advancements that people need to know about. So many miraculous stories, but layered on top of that are tales of medical advancements that are world class.”

For Plantinga, raising money for Children’s Hospital also has a personal angle. Just three weeks after her son, Ross, was born, he came down with a life-threatening infection.

“He was admitted to Children’s Hospital, where he stayed for more than a week,” Plantinga said. “The great care at Vanderbilt saved his life. He came back to the hospital at 3 months old for a surgery to correct his problem. All went smoothly, and he’s a strong, healthy 12-year-old today.”

Coleman has also seen her efforts to raise money for Children’s Hospital grow into more of a personal calling after dedicating 2,900 hours of her time to the cause. Her involvement was recognized last year at CMN’s annual conference when she was honored as the “TV Person of the Year.”

“Throughout the years I have grown so attached to the hospital, the staff,” Coleman said. “So it’s not a job for me now. That’s why I don’t sleep the night before, because I don’t want to disappoint people there.”

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