ELIZABETH HAHN ELLIS Love of sports, organization really 'peying' off Foundation director coordinates philanthropic moves for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning
There's hardly a Hoosier today who hasn't heard of Peyton Manning and his amazing plays on the field. But quietly coordinating the philanthropic plays behind the scenes for Manning's PeyBack
Foundation is Indianapolis native Elizabeth Hahn Ellis.
As executive director of the 7-year-old charitable foundation, Ellis, 36, deftly fields requests from not-forprofit organizations seeking grants, contributions from individuals and corporate sponsors, and plans several activities for disadvantaged youth here, in Knoxville, Tenn., and in New Orleans.
The Cathedral High School graduate earned a degree in sports management from the University of Dayton in 1993. Unlike many college students, who change majors as often as hairstyles, Ellis knew this was the field she wanted to work in from day one.
"I knew that sports management was what I wanted to do," Ellis said. "Growing up in Indianapolis, I always enjoyed sports. I didn't really play them that much, but I loved the organizational part of sports."
And it's a good thing, because Ellis coordinates signature annual events like the PeyBack Bowl and PeyBack Classic with monthly events involving area youth. She also coordinates the grant program, which last year gave $312,000 to 53 organizations, including $115,000 to the city of New Orleans for Katrina relief efforts. In the past 12 months she has received a record 300 grant applications-five times more than just two years ago. Ellis credits this to Manning's growing popularity-not just in Indiana but throughout the country.
While many of the programs she oversees are based in Indianapolis, Ellis also coordinates annual holiday parties for youth in Knoxville and New Orleans. Since 2000, the foundation has hosted more than 1,000 Indianapolis youth from more than 100 community agencies at the annual PeyBack Holiday Celebration at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
Brooke's Place, a local not-for-profit organization that assists children and families grieving the loss of loved ones, has participated in the celebration. Carol Braden, executive program director, said the holidays can be an especially difficult time for grieving families.
"Holiday times are so painful for these families, and it's such a joy to be able to participate and be around Peyton," Braden said. "He's so gracious. It's not only the children's eyes that light up but it's the adults' too. It brings a lot of joy at a time that is so difficult."
Learning the ropes
Ellis gained experience while in college working as an intern at the Major Taylor Velodrome. That's where she first became aware of nearby Marian College and it's national championship cycling team. The college hired her as an admissions counselor after graduation. She stayed for a year before moving on to the Indiana Sports Corp., where she had also done an internship. It was there that she met Manning, who had approached then-director Dale Neuberger for help with running his new foundation.
Ellis began assisting the foundation on a part-time basis in 2001. She continued in that role while holding full-time positions with the Leukemia Society and Carmelbased Conseco, where she worked in the community relations department helping to match employee volunteers with community needs and administering the company's grant program.
When corporate changes at Conseco ended that job, Indiana Sports Corp. created a position for her overseeing volunteers. Ellis managed volunteers for highprofile events, such as the World Police and Fire Games, the 14th International Basketball Federation World Basketball Championship in 2002, and the 2004 World Swimming Championships at Conseco Fieldhouse.
She left Indiana Sports Corp. to become the full-time executive director of the PeyBack Foundation in 2005, when the former director left. She said the thread that tied all of her jobs together is organizing events, like the annual Pey-Back Bowl bowling event that has raised more than $850,000 since 2003 for underprivileged children in Indianapolis. Besides Manning's participation, several Colts players and other celebrities, such as NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, Indy 500 champion Dan Wheldon, and NBC sports anchor Bob Costas, have participated. The event has grown so large that Ellis has hired a consultant to assist with planning and running the event.
Ellis's other major event is the PeyBack Classic, launched in 2000, which gives four area high school football teams an opportunity to compete on the same field as the Indianapolis Colts. More than $300,000 in proceeds from the event has been funneled to the participating schools.
But the program that is especially meaningful for Ellis is Peyton's Pals, a partnership with Child Advocates Inc., a not-for-profit agency that represents abused and neglected children. Twenty middle school students are selected each year to participate in monthly outings that expose them to a variety of educational, cultural and community service activities.
Child Advocates executive director Cynthia Booth said Ellis combines strong organization skills and a keen business sense in running the foundation.
"Elizabeth handles all of the details," Booth said. "She thinks ahead and plans so that, when we get to the event, we can spend time getting to know the kids and having fun."
Ellis helped plan activities like an overnight trip to King's Island in Cincinnati, a viewing of the "Lion King" at the Murat Theatre and volunteer opportunities in which the kids give to others, like a bowling tournament for Special Olympics Indiana. The highlight for the kids was a three-day Disney cruise in June.
"These kids had never been to the airport, let alone flown," Ellis said. "They had never experienced the ocean, so seeing their reactions was great."
On Feb. 26, graduation ceremonies were held for the current Peyton's Pals class-something that's always emotional, Ellis said.
"It's hard when we see the kids graduate," she said. "That's why we started a scholarship program this year, where each will receive $1,000 toward future education, whether it's college or vocational training. We want them to know that, just because they're done with the program, that we're not done with them. If we can help in any way, we will."
As a one-woman operation, she knows that her workload is likely to grow, given the increased attention Manning has received since the Colts' Super Bowl win.
"Our Web site has received hundreds of thousands of hits in the past two weeks," she said, and donations are increasing.
Manning is involved year-round with the foundation. Ellis is looking ahead to activities for the new Peyton's Pals class and planning this year's events. Pre-planning is especially critical this year, because Ellis is expecting twins in August.
How does she think being a new mom will affect her work?
"Being 36 years old and never having children, it will be interesting," Ellis said. "This is a very flexible job, so if I need to work at home, I can." The one thing she knows is Manning isn't likely to be any less popular in years to come.
"He's an all-around amazing person," she said. "It's wonderful to do what we do-give out money to support the community and do fun things. To get to represent such an outstanding person is an honor."