A one-day design marathon led and executed largely by Hokies delivered critically needed free marketing materials to 18 area nonprofits.

Over 12 hours, designers and developers at Make a Mark’s Roanoke-Blacksburg Make-a-Thon produced websites, brochures, mobile apps, logos, social media campaigns, and other essentials for nonprofits like Child Health Investment Partnership, Feeding America Southwest Virginia, Local Colors, New River Family Shelter, NRV Cares, and Rescue Mission of Roanoke.

More than half of the 50 volunteers were students, faculty, and alumni from Virginia Tech, including a large contingent from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and its visual communication design program in the School of Visual Arts. Hokie “makers” also hailed from Pamplin College of Business, the College of Engineering, Undergraduate Academic Affairs, InnovationSpace, University Relations, and sponsor companies throughout the region.

Makers at Make a Mark

SOVA student Jina Ro and CLAHS alumnus Christopher Klein work on designs for nonprofit clients.
Jina Ro, a junior in the School of Visual Arts, and Christopher Klein, a 2011 alumnus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, work on projects for nonprofit clients in the one-day design marathon.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to create something in the span of 12 hours that will have long-lasting value for a nonprofit in need,” said Kirby Emerson, a junior industrial design major from Seattle who helped revamp social media sites and graphic designs for two nonprofits. “Being able to contribute my design skills as a service to the community is very gratifying.”

The design volunteers paired up with nonprofit client teams at sponsor Qualtrax’s Blacksburg headquarters March 25. Mentored by SOVA faculty members Jeff Joiner, Meaghan Dee, Patrick Finley, and Katie Meaney, the teams delivered the goods on time and on target to grateful clients.

“The social media toolkit our design team created for us is invaluable,” said Ashley Reynolds Marshall, executive director of Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley and also a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student. “We are a two-person organization, unable to create or contract out for such quality design work. These tools will enable us to have more effective conversations with the community using social media, which can have a profound impact on someone struggling with mental illness or with a loved one who has a mental health issue.”

Sarah Obenauer, Make a Mark founder and VT alumnus

Sarah Obenauer, a 2012 alumnus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is Make a Mark's founder.
Sarah Obenauer, a 2012 alumnus of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, is Make a Mark's founder.

The event, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences alumnus and Make a Mark founder Sarah Obenauer.

After graduating in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in communication, Obenauer worked for a nonprofit statewide traffic safety organization and experienced first-hand the desperate need that many nonprofits have for good design and marketing.

Obenauer taught herself design to fill the need for her organization, but then set her sights on helping others.

“At Virginia Tech, I grew deeply as a person, developing my understanding and empathy, my inspiration to lead, and my desire to serve my community,” she said. “I decided there had to be a way to bridge the gap between nonprofits and the creative community and that the best place to start was in our region.”

In 2014, Obenauer launched Make a Mark, building the organization on evenings and weekends while working full-time as a marketing communications specialist at Qualtrax.

Her first design marathon in Blacksburg drew 40 volunteers to help 12 nonprofits. In 2016, it expanded to 15 nonprofits and 80 volunteers.

Today, it’s her full-time vocation and has grown well beyond the Make-a-Thon event. Make a Mark offers free training sessions to nonprofits, events in cities throughout the region, and a growing network of sponsors, donors, and mentors – many with Virginia Tech connections. It also runs a nonprofit roundtable, which brings together nonprofit leaders in diverse areas to share challenges and boost impact.

Make a Mark overhead shot

Volunteers at Make a Mark
More than 50 volunteer "makers" -- many with Virginia Tech connections -- cranked out websites, logos, social media campaigns, and other marketing materials for nonprofits in a 12-hour design marathon.

I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity to focus on executing on my personal purpose, which is lived out through Make a Mark,” Obenauer said. “My goal in life has been to help people tell their stories through design, creativity, and technology. I’m humbled by the response from the community and especially from my alma mater.”

Joiner, assistant professor of practice and director of FourDesign, a student-run design studio within SOVA, serves as a creative mentor and advisory board member for Make a Mark.

“Through Make a Mark, we can make the world a better place by helping these companies get their message out to more people in need of their services,” Joiner said. “Our motto is Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), and this is a perfect way to use our talents to do that.”

“Make A Mark was an opportunity to design something that would make a positive impact in my community, and for my designs to land in something worthwhile,” added junior Julia Rater, a visual communication design major from Sherman, New York. “I loved working with the nonprofits, as well as meeting new team members from the community in our field. I can't wait for next year!”