On the first Saturday of each November, Arizona children can be found running around a construction site. But it’s not a fair or a public event. It’s Big Dig for Kids, a day when Phoenix Children’s patients and their siblings get to climb on bulldozers, operate excavators and ride scissor lifts to their hearts’ content.

“Last year, a little boy’s parents came over and said, ‘We have never seen him as happy in his life as he has been today. He can’t stop smiling!’” says Dave Crawford, former Sundt Construction CEO and one of the founding board members of Big Dig. “And I
said, ‘Well, that’s what we’re doing it for.’”

A young boy plays with a toy construction crane at the Big Dig for Kids event.

The event provides a welcome distraction from doctor appointments, medical tests and treatments for families and a real way for construction companies and operators to give back. “It’s really cool to see the volunteer operators, who are these big, burly guys, interacting with these tiny, little kids,” says Sarah Owen, Sundt business development manager. “The kids—and the operators—have just the best time.”

And yet, as impactful as event day is, it’s only half the story. Not only do the construction companies that participate show the families a fun, carefree time, but they also sponsor the event, with nearly 100% of sponsorship dollars going directly to Phoenix Children’s.

Dream to reality

Owen, who is also a founding board member, was the one to pitch the idea of Big Dig to Crawford in 2016.

“I thought maybe we could get some equipment at a site and the kids can climb in it and take pictures, which is always exciting because kids—and adults for that matter—love to be around construction equipment,” Crawford says. “And then the idea just kind of expanded from there.”

A young girl wears glasses that have construction truck wheels on them at the Big Dig for Kids event.

But Crawford knew Sundt couldn’t do it alone. He reached out to colleagues in the Valley other contractors, equipment suppliers, rental companies and more—to help provide the greatest construction-site-turned-jungle-gym they could imagine.

“I called about 15 people,” Crawford says. “And this speaks to the heart of the construction industry, every single one of them said yes. Not only that, all 15 of those companies that made up the founding board are still involved today.”

Making a local impact

Big Dig wasn’t always a Phoenix Children’s event. Between 2016 and 2019, proceeds went to a national nonprofit to fund childhood cancer research. In 2020, the board decided to keep the proceeds closer to home. Crawford says the transition was a no-brainer—not only does Phoenix Children’s do remarkable work in the community, but they also treat Big Dig board members as true partners and offer support and resources for the event.

“They had done such a good job in the community as the premier children’s hospital,” he says. “They had an excellent reputation, and many of our families had been touched by the hospital at one point or another.”

Fundraising for Phoenix Children’s also meant being able to see exactly where the money was going. “As builders, we like to create things,” Owen says. “And so being able to physically see the impact that our fundraising has and be able to see the kids that it impacts was really important to us.”

Dave Crawford and Sarah Owen pose for a photo in front of a Sundt truck.
Sundt Construction's Dave Crawford and Sarah Owen brought Arizona's construction industry together in support of Phoenix Children's.

Crawford says the truly amazing thing about Big Dig is how it highlights the construction industry’s innate ability to work together as a team. That teamwork has allowed the Big Dig event board to operate with very little overhead.

“We're an all-volunteer group, and I know a lot of groups say that, but we also get nearly everything donated, allowing us to write a check to Phoenix Children's for 99.3% of the money we raise each year,” Crawford says.

Even the 40 or so equipment operators, some of whom come from out of state for the event, are volunteers. “Three quarters of our operators have been with us every year,” Crawford says. “Some of them get off shift in Texas and California and drive all night to be here.”

Building better each year

Although the pandemic forced the team to cancel the event in 2020, the board still managed to raise $18,420 for the hospital that year. The 2021 event welcomed over 1,600 patients and family members and raised $416,875. The most recent Big Dig, in November 2023, was attended by more than 1,700 and raised $859,977.

A young boy sits in a construction crane.

But while Crawford and Owen say they hope to grow the amount raised in future years, the event is still designed for families first. “It’s not open to the public, and that’s by design,” Owen says. “We want the quality of the event to stay high and remain focused on Phoenix Children’s families. We don’t want people to come and be waiting for hours to get on equipment and not enjoy themselves.”

While Crawford is no longer CEO of Sundt, he still serves on the Big Dig board. Construction leaders in the Valley remain eager to support Phoenix Children’s and the patient families. “It’s a beautiful thing to see our industry come together and give these kids a day where they get to forget about everything and just be kids,” Owen says.

Big Dig Board members pose for a photo in front of a construction crane.
Big Dig board members include representation from all 15 original companies that came together for the inaugural event.
Proceeds at Work

For the past two years, the funds raised by Big Dig have gone to support Phoenix Children’s MIBG Targeted Therapy Program. MIBG therapy (meta-iodobenzyl guanidine therapy) is a highly specialized form of radiotherapy for treatment-resistant neuroblastoma, a cancer that most commonly affects the adrenal glands in children under 5 years old.

MIBG is now the standard of care for children with neuroblastoma, and yet there are only 35 children’s hospitals in the country that offer the treatment, none of which are in Arizona. Once fully established, Phoenix Children’s MIBG Targeted Therapy Program will also allow pediatric oncologists to participate in clinical trials testing MIBG for the treatment of other childhood cancers, such as Ewing sarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, osteosarcoma and lymphomas.

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