Editor’s Note: A version of the following profile ran in the Fall 2017 issue of Expression, the magazine for alumni and friends of Emerson College. We’re posting it on Emerson College Today in honor of the five-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing and “Boston Strong,” which was started by three Emerson College students.
Chris Dobens ’16 crossed the finish line on Boston’s Boylston Street last April 17 with his ankle in a brace, his system full of ibuprofen, and his priorities in sharp focus.
He had sprained his ankle while training for the Boston Marathon, an event that, four years earlier, had spurred in him a drive to empower and help others.
In 2013, just hours after two pressure cooker bombs detonated near the Boylston Street finish line, killing three and injuring hundreds, Dobens and Nicholas Reynolds ’14 designed and created “Boston Strong” T-shirts to raise money for victims of the bombing.
Dobens and Reynolds, along with fellow Emersonian Lane Brenner ’13, who managed marketing for the project, ended up creating a campaign that raised more than $1 million for the Boston Marathon bombing survivors. In doing so, they coined a phrase that came to embody not just the city’s resilience in the face of horror, but also the city’s own identity.
Four years later, Dobens found himself helping victims of trauma once again, this time by running Boston to raise money for the Stepping Strong Center for Trauma Innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“It was probably one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” he said of his 26.2-mile odyssey.
But if training for and running the race was hard, Dobens discovered, so was raising money – much harder than selling Boston Strong T-shirts. He had a goal of $10,000 – an ambitious sum for a first-time marathoner who hasn’t had time to build up a network of donors – and raised about half of his goal, $2,000 of which came from T-shirts that he’d had printed up to sell.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” he said.
Dobens’s relationship with the Boston Marathon began in the Little Building on April 15, 2013, when he heard what he thought were “celebration cannons” going off.
“But then we realized that doesn’t happen when you’re halfway through a marathon, or anything else,” Dobens recalled. “We realized we were attacked.”
Dobens said he and a number of hallmates had wanted to go out onto Boylston Street to help get people to the hospital, but the campus was on lockdown and no one was going anywhere for a while, so he came up with “the next best solution.”
He had had experience making T-shirts in high school with his dad, so he suggested to Reynolds, his residence advisor, that they sell tees, with the proceeds going to help victims. Reynolds got on board right way, he said.
Obviously, they needed a catchphrase.
“[Other organizations] all have these well-constructed communities, so we were like, ‘This is what we need; we need a community more than anything, so let’s do ‘Boston Strong,’” Dobens said.
Coming up with the design was easy, too: Bright yellow words on a deep blue background – the colors of the Boston Marathon jacket that year, which are also the colors of the Boston Athletic Association, the nonprofit organization that organizes the marathon.
After just one month, they had raised $837,000 and significant media attention.
Starting Boston Strong taught Dobens a valuable lesson: “The experience led me to what I really care about, and what I want to do with my life,” he said. “My life goal is to run a nonprofit that helps people.”
That nonprofit would likely resemble Boston Strong. He envisions designing and selling apparel to raise money for causes, possibly with additional components such as fundraising events and partnerships with other organizations.
He’s taken the first step of getting back into the nonprofit world. Last spring, he left his job at Agency 451 in Boston’s North End to head to the seaside town of Beverly, Massachusetts, to become a residence director at Endicott College. There he also will be able to attend graduate school.
Through all of his experiences – as co-founder of Boston Strong, as a content creator, as a community builder – he’s learned that “everyone has their own story to tell,” he said.
“The potential to grow, the potential to go somewhere in life … it’s really up to you,” he said. “And if you’re putting limits on yourself or someone else, it’s really detrimental.”