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Brian Nelson

What is your official title?

I am a Vision Care Representative for Rx Optical. My unofficial title, though, is Serial Volunteer.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

During the day I’m either on the phone with my clients or on the road meeting with them in person. I do more of the business to business marketing for our Battle Creek to Detroit market. I drive to Detroit once or twice a week.

By night, I do a lot of stuff for Girls on the Run, Make-A-Wish, and Walk Tall Foundation; those are the fun things.


Tell us more about the non-profits that you’re involved with.

The one that is most local is the Greater Kalamazoo Girls on the Run; I sit on the board for them and I chair their Fund Development Committee. I’ve coached a few years over in the Winchell location. I’ve done it all, the “Banana”, the “snaps”, and I’ve danced more in the past two years doing that than I have probably in the past decade. It’s a great organization as far as their mission and what they want to do with their impact in Kalamazoo.

The statistic that really stuck with me when I was first getting involved was that a young girl’s self-esteem peaks at age nine; I think that’s horrible! You shouldn’t only think you’re a princess at nine; you should think you’re a princess at 39! The Kalamazoo community really lends itself to this program in how well they embrace what the program is doing. The participation is out of this world. I believe we see 45% of 3rd to 5th graders; the next closest across the nation is St. Louis, MO and they’re at 11%. We were, up until about four years ago, the largest chapter in the country. Right now, I think we are about the 5th largest, and we have around 2,000 girls participate each year.

Also, there is a group of us in Kalamazoo on a team called Team Taylor. A good friend of mine, Rob Grainger’s daughter had congenital heart failure and was a Wish Kid. About seven years ago, he started riding this 300-mile bike ride for Make-A-Wish and raised funds for the organization. I started to help him with our online stores and communications to the team. We have our own event called the Tour de Taylor that we put on in Mattawan; it’s a great event that draws around 500 people every year.

I work really closely with Rob to manage that team. There are about 120 of us that do the 300-mile ride over three days starting in Traverse City. We host fundraisers at places like Latitude 42, Big Burrito, and Culvers, to name a few. Over the past six years, we’ve raised $1.2 million for Make-A-Wish in Michigan to grant wishes for kids. I think they have granted some 750 wishes to kids in Michigan; it’s really cool.

Walk Tall Foundation for Kids is the non-profit we run under to fundraise for Team Taylor. I am the Director. It’s where we filter our money through as we fundraise and host events to Make-A-Wish in Michigan, some scholarship programs for Mattawan, and the Children’s Heart Fund.


Any Kalamazoo events you’re particularly excited about?

In Kalamazoo, it’s preparing for Tour de Taylor and Race for Wishes, which is a month before the 300-mile bike ride. We do a volunteer sponsor/donor recognition event for Girls on the Run in the spring, so looking forward to that as well.

I’m also going to be doing logistics for the Kalamazoo Marathon and managing the last mile of the course with a crew the first Sunday in May.


Any races or events that you’d like to participate in but haven’t yet?

I prefer to be on the back end of events. I like to help create them and organize them and make sure they run smoothly. I can do an event and get a t-shirt, or, I can help with an event and make it better. For the Kalamazoo Marathon, I do the logistics, so I coordinate twelve aid stations; it’s not difficult, but it’s a lot of work. I love being on that side of it.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I’ve always been in Kalamazoo, born and raised, went to Portage Central. I actually started with Rx Optical while I was still in high school. I did a little schooling at KVCC, but have been at Rx Optical for 17 years. I’ve done a lot of different things for them – I’ve done retail, worked in the lab, put glasses together, worked in IT, trained our retail opticians, and I’ve been doing my current role for the past nine years. It’s great, I’m on the phone, I’m on the road, and I get to talk. Rx Optical is a Michigan company, single owner, been around in Kalamazoo for 67 years. We have our laboratory and administration in Kalamazoo, and have 52 locations across the state.

About eight years ago, I was about 60 pounds heavier, had just lost two close family members, and was in a wretched relationship. I went on vacation in Ohio and rode my bike a bunch while I was there. I got back and went to the bike shop and bought a road bike. I got the shoes, the gear, the whole works, and when I went to pick up my bike, a guy by the name of Dan Martz was there and said to me, “Oh, is this your first Cannondale?” and I said to him, “Actually, this is my first road bike.” He doesn’t even ask me what my name was, but gives me his phone number and said to call him because he rides every day. I knew no one in the riding community. I probably drank too much beer and ate pizza every day, it was horrible, and I felt horrible. Dan is Rob Grainger’s brother-in-law, which is how I met all of these great bikers in the community and how I got involved with Team Taylor and Girls on the Run. After my first 300-mile Make-A-Wish ride is when I really got the itch to volunteer. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have time, and I try to give that back.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

The people are the biggest difference. I have not lived anywhere else, but I’ve traveled a lot and maybe the only nicer people out there are in Kentucky; maybe just because of their accent and they say “y’all”. It’s hard to go to a big city, because people are kind of mean and fast-paced, what do you want, don’t really care kind-of attitudes. In Kalamazoo, you can go around the town and run into a bunch of people you know, which is awesome.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

Almost all singer/songwriters. I like City and Colour, and Ben Howard.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

It’s 50/50 – black or straight up half and half. Well, what I mean is either black or with a little flavor, I don’t like double macchiato cinnamon espresso drinks.


Favorite local beer?

Dark Horse Crooked Tree IPA. My favorite go to beer is a PBR.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

The Kalamazoo Nature Center out on their trails; the property out there is just awesome. Or my grandparents’ place. Really anywhere outdoors is great.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

More schooling. I got my Associates and could use two to four more years; it would’ve been a lot easier to do it back then, then it is now. I wanted to be a dolphin trainer, and then you see a movie like Blackfish and I was like, nope! I am going back to school for Business Administration in March at KVCC. I’m terrified and excited.


Who would play you in a movie?

I want Brad Pitt to play me, but in reality, it’s probably Dawson from Dawson’s Creek. What’s his name? James VanderBeek! Yeah, I think it’d have to be him since we kind of look alike. I used to have the longer hair.


What does your perfect Friday night look like?

I really value the time I spend with my friends and my family; time spent with them takes precedence over most other things for me. I want to be with people that I can have good conversation with, and people that want to do good for themselves, the ones they love and the community. That’s something that’s really changed for me in the past eight years when I got active with Team Taylor; I feel like I’ve found my niche as far as what I like to do and what I’m fairly good at.

Brian, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Brian and Team Taylor on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.