Cornell’s Sigma Chi fraternity hosted Derby Days, its annual philanthropy event, throughout the first week of May, raising money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute and The Matthew Friedman Memorial Foundation.
Every year, the fraternity collaborates with multiple sororities in the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby to raise awareness for their philanthropic mission and to foster collaboration and friendly competition among the Greek organizations.
During the week, the members of the Alpha Phi, Delta Gamma, Kappa Kappa Gamma and Kappa Alpha Theta sororities competed for points in several events — including a banner design contest, a scavenger hunt, a carnival and “Miles for Matt,” a challenge to run the most miles in honor of Matthew, who was an avid runner and high school track star. The process of earning points in these events ranged from getting the most likes on an Instagram post of each sorority’s respective banner, to completing the items on the scavenger hunt first, to spending the most money on car washes, food and petting zoo admission fees at the carnival.
Derby Days began as a tradition at the University of California Berkeley in 1933. During the 1960s, many other chapters across the country started their own iterations of the event, creating a vast network of Sigma Chi chapters working together to raise funds for charity — with no significant link between Sigma Chi and the Kentucky Derby.
Each year, the event supports the Huntsman Cancer Institute, an organization dedicated to researching, treating and eradicating all forms of cancer. This year, Derby Days included another mission very important to the Sigma Chi brothers — honoring the memory of Matthew Friedman ’26, a beloved member who tragically suffered a brain aneurysm and died in April 2023.
According to Garrett Friedman ’25, Sigma Chi’s philanthropy chair, the Friedman family is in the process of creating The Matthew Friedman Memorial Foundation for Brain Research, which will strive to contribute to brain aneurysm research. Alongside donating to Huntsman, the fraternity will also donate to the Friedman Foundation with the funds raised from Derby Days.
“Derby Days is an important event, because it allows us all to take a step back from the stresses of finals and focus on something which extends beyond ourselves — this year being brain aneurysm research and Matt,” said Mike Sama ’24, a Sigma Chi member.
Garrett Friedman remarked that these events require extensive planning and preparation, with this year’s activities meticulously organized at least a month in advance.
“The carnival is generally the most anticipated event of the week,” Garrett Friedman said. “It is a fun event that takes place in the fraternity house’s yard. This year [the carnival] consisted of a car wash, dunk tank and a petting zoo. It is a great way for the fraternity to come together and open our doors to everyone participating in Derby Days.”
When asked about Miles for Matt, Garrett Friedman said that this event is special in that it honors his memory while engaging the entire community in exercise. He hopes that in Derby Days to come, the event will remain part of the weekly schedule.
Sama echoed this sentiment, adding that the event reflects some of Matthew’s most notable qualities — dedication, commitment and unwavering strength.
“Matt is the best example for any of us to follow,” Sama said. “He was driven, curious, kind hearted, nonjudgmental and radiated happiness into every room he walked into. Dedicating the week to Matt is only the surface of all of us trying to live like he did.”
The organization that tallies the most points by the end of the week has the opportunity to donate 10 percent of the total funds raised to a non-profit organization of their choosing. This year, Delta Gamma accrued the most points throughout the week and was crowned Derby Day’s champion.
Malia Buljat ’24, Delta Gamma’s philanthropy chair, said the chapter’s national philanthropy is Service for Sight — an organization that supports four schools founded by Delta Gamma members. These schools provide education for the visually impaired and support other North American organizations that promote sight preservation and assist visually-impaired individuals.
This year, instead of donating the 10 percent of total funds raised to Service for Sight, Delta Gamma used their earnings to support The Matthew Friedman Memorial Foundation.
Buljat said that ongoing partnership amongst multiple Greek organizations, such as those partnerships enhanced during Derby Days, is necessary to achieve philanthropic goals and make large impacts on causes that are important to individuals and organizations as a whole.
“It allowed us to connect with our sisters and the brothers of Sigma Chi to raise awareness for a meaningful cause,” Buljat said.
At the end of the week, the brothers announced that a total of $40,135 was raised for both the Huntsman Foundation and The Matthew Friedman Memorial Foundation for Brain Research.
“My favorite part [of the week] was the end when we had a concrete number to donate that made us all proud,” said James Manolis ’24, a Sigma Chi member. “It’s a satisfying and wholesome achievement, and I feel lucky to be a part of it all.”
Overall, the Sigma Chi brotherhood expressed pride in having hosted a week of philanthropic activities for the campus community to engage in and to honor the legacy of Matt. According to Jaden Queen ’24, Sigma Chi’s President, the chapter is very grateful for the support they have received during Derby Days.
“Derby Days is an incredible event that brings together the Cornell community and fosters a sense of unity among our brothers,” said Queen. “As we look forward, we are excited to continue making progress and supporting these important causes in the future.”
Garrett Friedman agreed, adding that the evident engagement and participation from the greater Cornell community represents a particularly special aspect of Derby Days.
“With the recent passing of Matt, Derby Days took on a new meaning. This year’s Derby Days was an opportunity for our brotherhood and the many others Matt touched during his life to honor and remember him,” Garrett Friedman said. “It was beautiful to see the outpouring of support from so many people. I had the privilege to organize these events, and seeing Matt’s network of close friends inside and outside of his fraternity come out and support Derby Days was truly amazing.”