This is the second in our series of profiles of the 2014 Chamber of Commerce Award winners. The awards will be presented at a dinner at the Clarion Hotel on Saturday.
One of Genesee County's most active volunteer organizations is in for a pretty big year. Genesee Cancer Assistance is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and it's being honored with a Special Service Recognition Award from the Chamber of Commerce.
Consisting of two office staff and around 50 volunteers, Genesee Cancer Assistance was founded in 1995 after the American Cancer Society withdrew its services from Genesee County. The organization provides emotional, financial and practical support to Genesee County cancer patients and their families. According to office manager Patricia Arnold, they have helped about 1,700 families and given more than half a million dollars to cancer patients in the last 20 years.
Some of their most well-known annual fund-raising events include the Festival of Hope, 5K Walk, golf tournament and spaghetti dinner.
Their nomination came from Paul Figlow, a member of the Genesee Cancer Assistance board of directors and chairman of the Festival of Hope.
"The reason I nominated (Genesee Cancer Assistance) is that I really think we need to get the word out about what we do," Figlow said.
Three things that make Genesee Cancer Assistance special
If you talk to the people involved, they will tell you that there are at least three major factors that distinguish Genesee Cancer Assistance.
First, all of the money they raise stays in Genesee County and goes directly to those who need it.
Second, everyone involved with the charity has been personally touched by cancer in some way. Figlow, for example, lost his mother to cancer in 2010.
"Probably about 99 percent of the people involved can give you a story," Figlow said. "Our organization really hits home to a lot of people."
Finally, the people of Genesee Cancer Assistance give their time and effort neither out of necessity nor personal gain, but because they have a passion for it.
“We're blessed with a very strong board presence,” said Steve Grice, board member and golf tournament co-chair, “people who are willing to put the effort in. But we're also blessed with a group of volunteers who don't go out and wave a flag, but are right there when we have an event. They show up and ask, ‘What can we do? Where do you want me?’ Anything you ask them to do, they'll do.”
Volunteers will also help with technology, advertising, or other areas according to their interest and expertise.
“It’s like God brought them down here,” said Board Member Joe Gerace, who is chairman of the spaghetti dinner fundraiser. “They really are good people. And they don’t complain (about the work). This is really a big family.”
As for Arnold and Sue Underwood, the only two paid staff, Grice said that they go “above and beyond” for their positions.
How Genesee Cancer Assistance works
Each patient is given $400 upon application. This is to help with hospital visits, copays, mileage, hospital parking fees, etc.
"It may seem like a small gesture to some," Grice said. "The money sometimes might seem minimal; but it's really not minimal to someone who's lying in a hospital bed on chemo and just wants somebody to hold their hand, or just sit there and watch TV with them. The family might not have the funds, because of insurance and all that."
Patient advocacy is also a big part of the mission. Staff at Genesee Cancer Assistance will answer, to the best of their ability, questions about any issues or concerns patients bring to them.
"Say a patient calls and says their utilities were shut off," Arnold said. "We will step in and tell them how to go about contacting the utility companies and what has to be done for their heat, for example, not to be shut off."
She said that oftentimes, if a patient can present proof from a doctor stating that the loss of electricity or other utilities would cause him or her harm, then the company cannot shut them off. But there are specific procedures people must go through in cases like these, and Genesee Cancer Assistance can guide them through such procedures.
Other services include referrals to other agencies when necessary (for example, when people have used up the services Genesee Cancer Assistance is able to provide), sharing educational materials with the community, and free Biblical counseling through Grace Baptist Church in Batavia.
One of Genesee Cancer Assistance's best-kept secrets is the "Simply Beautiful" program, which is Gerace's brainchild. He runs it with the help of dedicated volunteers Carol Grasso, Joyce Meisner, Karen Roland and Amy Nichols, as well as others.
It is sort of a cross between cosmetic aid and a support group. The first thing Gerace does for everyone once they arrive is try to make them comfortable.
"When they come in, they're very nervous," Gerace said. “And I try to help them out. I give them coffee, or donuts, or fruit. It depends. (Once they feel relaxed), if they don't have a wig, I put a wig on them to show them what they look like."
Patients -- both men and women -- get free makeup and wigs (or hats, if they are not interested in wigs) up to $200 in value, over and above the $400 they receive upon application. Makeup includes artificial eyebrows and eyelashes for those who have lost these as a result of chemotherapy.
"Simply Beautiful" meets on a monthly basis as a general rule, although sometimes this is impossible due to treatment schedules or illness. In those cases, Gerace will do his best to accommodate people's needs.
"They'll either call me up, or call Patty from the office, who says: 'Joe, we got a woman who needs a hairpiece and can't wait. Would you let her come to the office and see if it's what she wants?' I've done that many times."
Gerace started "Simply Beautiful" after being involved with a similar program in association with the American Cancer Society, "Look Good, Feel Better."
When American Cancer Society services diminished in Genesee County, he and his fellow volunteers "had to start from fresh." He was asked to come up with the name for a new program, and was told to "keep it simple."
"And I said, 'Yes, that's a good name -- "Simply Beautiful.” ’ ”
A community effort
Another ingredient in the success of Genesee Cancer Assistance is their ability to form productive partnerships with people in the community.
"There are many people that we have helped who take it on themselves to do their own fundraisers,” Figlow said. “And they basically do it all themselves. These are quite the events -- I'm sure they spend months working on them. (In each case) they tell us about the event, they take care of everything, and then we receive a check every year."
Some of their partners include Paul Berardini of Big Pauly's Pizza, T.F. Brown's, Kiwanis of Corfu-Pembroke, Toni Funke and her "Zumba in the Sand" program, and Michelle Shade, who puts on a "Christmas Angel Festival and Basket Raffle" at Calvary Baptist Church in Batavia every November.
"All the service clubs in Genesee County help us some way somehow," Gerace said, "whether it's the Lions Club, Zonta, Sertoma Club (and others). And Patty Arnold is very good about making sure everyone who helps us gets a thank-you."
For more information on Genesee Cancer Assistance and what they do, call 345-0417.
Photo: Dr. Kevin Mudd, president of Genesee Cancer Assistance Board of Directors.