Hamm driven to help Bears assist those in need
Story by Larry Mayer
Marge Hamm was a co-captain on the University of Notre Dame's first women's varsity basketball team. But a different sport has always been her favorite.
As far back as she can remember—right around the time she was a 5-year-old tomboy attending Kindergarten in upstate New York—the long-time director of Bears Care—the charitable arm of the Bears—has been infatuated with football.
"Football was my first love, to be perfectly honest," Hamm said. "I watched all the New York Giants games with my dad. I had a football helmet. I asked for shoulder pads, which [my parents] would never buy me. But football was what I wished I could have played at the time. I just loved the game when I watched it."
After her family moved to Birmingham, Mich., a Detroit suburb, when Hamm was in seventh grade, they purchased Lions seasons tickets. She recalls braving cold and snowy conditions while sitting in the bleachers at Tiger Stadium before the Lions moved indoors to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975.
Given her passion for football, it's no surprise that Hamm landed a job in the NFL with the Bears. But that didn't happen until 2004 when she was seeking a second career. First, she graduated with an accounting degree from Notre Dame, passed the CPA exam and was hired by the accounting firm Price Waterhouse.
After marrying a fellow accountant, Ward Hamm, she eventually left the workforce and served as a stay-at-home mom for about a decade, raising their three daughters. Once her youngest child entered high school, Hamm sought to return to work—and discovered a position with the Bears that she considered a perfect fit.
"I felt that it was a good match for my skill set," Hamm said. "I felt I had a fairly broad knowledge of sports and football in particular. It was incredibly appealing."
When Bears Care was incorporated as a 501 © 3 organization in 2006, Hamm was named its director. In the decade and a half since she's remained in that role, Bears Care has issued grants totaling nearly $23 million to over 100 qualifying agencies, benefitting countless Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana residents.
Hamm stresses that it's a team effort, insisting "I do nothing as an individual," and praising the Bears Care Board of Directors as well as the team's community relations and football communications departments, among others, for their support.
"The real difference makers are our fans, our community and business partners and the Chicago Bears organization," Hamm said. "It is their generosity and trust in Bears Care as a steward of their charitable contributions that allows us together to make a tangible impact in our community."
While Hamm humbly shares the credit, she is clearly the captain of the ship.
"She's so competent," said Caroline Guip Schrenker, who worked closely with Hamm as Bears director of community relations from 2006-15 and continues to serve on the Bears Care Board of Directors. "She has such passion for not only the team but also for Bears Care. She really finds strategic creative ways to leverage the Bears organization to best support the charity so that the charity can make the biggest impact in Chicago."
Every decision that she makes is really about the people who are benefitting from Bears Care. Her approach is always to make sure the people of Chicagoland—whether it's the charities that Bears Care is supporting or the fans who are part of a program Bears Care supports—have the absolute best experience possible. Former Bears director of community relations Caroline Guip Schrenker on Marge Hamm
According to its mission statement, Bears Care is "committed to improving the quality of life for people in the Chicagoland community, especially disadvantaged children and their families, through targeted programs supporting education, youth athletics and medical research and health awareness programs focusing on breast and ovarian cancer."
Bears Care's signature event remains its annual Gala, a black-tie affair held every spring in the United Club at Soldier Field. The Bears Care Gala is regularly attended by the team's ownership, management, coaches and players, and includes silent and live auctions. Funds raised at the popular event benefit innovative breast and ovarian cancer research efforts in Chicago.
"Over the years with the support of a wonderful group of dedicated volunteers, we've developed a sound annual process for raising the funds, and then [we are] immediately getting to work with our hospital partners to determine where the dollars can have the greatest immediate impact," Hamm said. "We track our investments over the course of the year and are able to report back to our supporters on what they have helped accomplish. We are proud of the tangible scientific advances and findings we've helped make possible."
“The real difference makers are our fans, our community and business partners and the Chicago Bears organization. It is their generosity and trust in Bears Care as a steward of their charitable contributions that allows us together to make a tangible impact in our community.” Marge Hamm
Another annual Bears Care fundraiser is the "Real Bears Fans Wear Pink" campaign, which raises money via the sale of pink t-shirts for organizations that provide critical services to breast cancer patients and their families.
"The thing I like about that is it really just complements the Gala," Hamm said. "While the Gala funds research and treatment programs, this initiative provides support for the patients. It provides free exercise, nutrition counseling, therapy and even funded a summer camp for kids whose moms have been battling breast cancer."
Bears Care also hosted an annual Back to School Fair in partnership with Catholic Charities from 2009-19 when the team held training camp in Bourbonnais. The event on the Olivet Nazarene University campus served residents from six surrounding counties, providing students with free vision and hearing screenings, school physicals, dental services, backpacks and school supplies.
"It really was significant for the Kankakee County community," Hamm said. "The guests that we would support represented a cross section of what American poverty looks like. It wasn't dominated by any race or ethnic group; some lived in the somewhat distressed city of Kankakee; others were farmers living in rural areas. You could see how it cut across all people at all stages and walks of life."
Bears Care has also partnered with Chicago neighborhood groups to serve residents in need of assistance. Recently, Bears Care—together with the Chicago Bears—invested $611,000 to build out a state-of-the-art training center and teaching kitchen in the new Healthy Lifestyle Hub currently under development by the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation. The purpose of the project is to increase access to health-and wealth-building opportunities for residents of the South Side neighborhood.
Hamm is constantly humbled and inspired by those who benefit from Bears Care's efforts. She recalls a mother and her middle-school aged son who won a set of bedroom furniture at one of the Back to School Fairs in Bourbonnais.
"The young man could not have been sweeter, nicer or more appreciative," Hamm said. "And then the mother broke into tears. She ended up sharing that she had just finished treatment for stage 3 cancer, lost her job because of her illness, and they were struggling to make ends meet. She was so incredibly grateful, and her son was so thrilled. I am constantly inspired by the resiliency of the people we are able to serve.
"I like to think I have learned to be a better listener over the years, and that has helped form some valued relationships and friendships with our charitable partners, our donors and fans, but primarily with the people across Chicagoland that we have been able to lift up in some way. It is humbling to be able to represent the Bears organization in the community and to see how even a small gesture from our organization can make an incredible difference in people's lives."
The Bears ended their run at ONU in 2019 and moved training camp back to Halas Hall in Lake Forest last year. But with fans prohibited from attending practices last summer due to COVID-19, Bears Care was forced to pivot quickly, relocating the event to Zion Central Middle School.
More than 1,300 students received backpacks, school supplies and health kits stocked with Bears-branded facemasks, hand sanitizer and tissues—as well as food from the Northern Illinois Food Bank and books from Bernie's Book Bank.
Adjusting on the fly is one of Hamm's greatest strengths.
"She's ready to move on a dime, and it isn't always easy, especially now with restricted movement," said Barb McCaskey, the wife of Bears chairman George H. McCaskey and a member of the Bears Care Board of Directors.
"She's really adjustable. When the situation changes or there's a different need that comes up, she is aware and deliberate in responding. When one thing isn't going to work, or in practice it's not going to be actionable, she'll find another way to serve the same group. She's pretty incredible."
"It is humbling to be able to represent the Bears organization in the community and to see how even a small gesture from our organization can make an incredible difference in people’s lives.” Marge Hamm
Schrenker, who worked with Hamm for a decade with the Bears, concurs with that description of the former Notre Dame women's basketball co-captain.
"She approaches everything in a very pragmatic yet empathetic way," Schrenker said. "She's always looking strategically how Bears Care can make the biggest impact. But every decision that she makes is really about the people who are benefitting from Bears Care.
"Her approach is always to make sure the people of Chicagoland—whether it's the charities that Bears Care is supporting or the fans who are part of a program Bears Care supports—have the absolute best experience possible. And she really thinks outside the box to come up with ideas that make that possible."