C is for cookie…not for cancer.

C is for Cookie…not for cancer. This was the phrase on the back of one team’s t-shirts, hence the cookie monster tee above.  I have participated in Relay For Life for almost 10 years now.  Relay holds a special place in my heart, not only because I’ve loved and lost some very important people to the big c, but because my involvement in Relay helped me to see what I wanted to do with my life.  After a few years of serving as the Event Chair, it was nice to get to truly experience Relay this year without having to troubleshoot all night.  Every year my mom and I host a team with the bank where she works. Our very clever team name is Banking on a Cure. And yes, we have our very own t-shirts.  We’re serious about our cancer fightin’!

Every year we have a team bake sale at our tent.  We make homemade cookies – chocolate chip, peanut butter, cranberry oatmeal, German chocolate – and sell them to fundraise for our team.  This year, my mom was all excited about the “guess how many m&m’s are in this jar” contest.  (I think she thought she had made it up 🙂 ).  $1 for 1 vote.  My dad guessed it exactly but she refused to let him win. She just kept taking his dollars…

The event began with a survivor reception honoring those cancer survivors in our community and showing our appreciation of the hope that they share – the hope that gives the rest of us hope that one day we will beat this. One day, no one else will have to hear the words, “you have cancer”.

I will say, I massacred this cake when I was asked to cut it. At least I got a before shot, right?

Every Relay kicks off with the survivor lap, where all those cancer survivors who are presented walk the first lap of the night.  There are sometimes strong survivors who have overcome cancer and won.  Then there are those who struggle to walk that one lap with help from a loved one.  It’s both sad and triumphant.  A survivor is always there to share their story and then the names of every other survivor are read aloud.  That is one of the only times during the night that it is quiet. The path is laid with luminaries in honor of or in memory of someone who has fought the battle.  There are always so many names and when I take the time to read them as I’m walking it always melts my heart a little.

A few years ago they added a caregiver lap since those who care for cancer patients are also fighting the battle as they watch someone they love go through the roller coaster that the disease creates.  The caregiver lap is so special and I think it is important to recognize those unsung heroes who often give up so much of themselves to become a caregiver.  And they never stop being one.

After the caregiver lap, everyone is invited to walk the track.  Teams usually do this on and off from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m.  The idea behind the overnight Relay is that cancer never sleeps and for one night, neither do we.  It’s a way for all of us – survivor, caregiver, friend, loved one, or simply cancer-hater – to stand up to the disease and say we’re not through fighting.  There are lots of onsite activities throughout the night – bouncy house, face painting, live music, the ever so popular and equally hilarious “Misster” Relay contest, etc. – but the whole reason we’re there is to fight back and remember those who have lost the battle as we celebrate those who have already won it.

After dark, we have the luminaria ceremony.  All of the luminaries that have been set around the track with names of those who have had cancer or who are still fighting are lit with a candle.  There is no chatter. No selling of food.  No more games.  Everyone walks in silence for about 30 minutes.  It never fails, I cry every year.  Not only because of the names I recognize, or even those of strangers, but also because I am reminded how fragile we are.  Anything can happen to anyone on any given day. Beyond that, there are some cancers that are 100% preventable.  So often people forget that sunscreen and staying away from tobacco are the  easiest ways to protect yourself against the disease.

I love the picture above of the fountain in the park surrounded by luminaries.  To me, the fountain lit in blue is peaceful and continuous.  Even in times of strife and despair, there are times when we are able to find peace. Whether it’s on a mountaintop or a yoga mat, or even in pleasant conversation with an old friend, we have peaceful memories that help us to become refreshed and to continue fighting whatever battle we might be face with at that time.  And no matter what the battle, life is continual. It goes on, even if we don’t.

We won’t all die from cancer, but cancer affects us all one way or another.  In whatever we are facing, it is important to…

Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.

A Gift that Keeps on Giving

So, we’ve already established that I believe in causes. I don’t think anyone can believe in enough of them. As one of the lucky Americans who has a loving family and friends, a precious dog that greets me at the door when I come home, a house and a car, a closet full of clothes and shoes, a kitchen always full of food and an abundance of stuff I don’t need, I feel it is my duty to do what I can to stand up for these causes that help to better the lives of those with real needs.

Every year, I give up traditional gifts for my birthday and ask for donations for a cause I believe in.  This year is the big 27 (I know, I’m inching my way to 30) and I am fundraising for Charity: Water instead of asking for presents. For those of you who haven’t heard me rant and rave about this amazing and world-changing organization, I’ll give you some background. Charity: Water is a nonprofit whose mission is to bring clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. If you’ve never been to a developing nation, I’m sure it might be hard to imagine. There are a billion people on the planet who do not have access to clean water. Not ten thousand. Not a million. But a BILLION people.

Diseases from unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Children are especially vulnerable, as their bodies aren’t strong enough to fight diarrhea, dysentery and other illnesses.  90% of the 30,000 deaths that occur every week from unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions are of children under five years old. Many of these diseases are preventable. The UN predicts that one tenth of the global disease burden can be prevented simply by improving water supply and sanitation.  If these statistics aren’t upsetting to you, then you’re missing a little organ called a heart.

Charity: Water is making a visible difference in this water crisis.  In their 6 short years of operation, they have funded 6,185 projects that allow 2,545,000 people access to clean water in 19 countries around the world.  The most amazing thing – 100% of donations go directly to water projects.

I am hoping that people will give $27 for my 27th birthday, but I will joyfully and thankfully accept any amount.  I hope you will make a donation to help others around the world receive the same benefits you do from clean water.  To donate, please visit my Charity: Water page.

Thanks a billion and lots of love,
Kristen 🙂

The V Girl

I am the V girl. I am a volunteer. I volunteer like it’s my job. In many ways, I guess it is. At my day job, I fundraise and organize events for a nonprofit that serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In my spare time, I am a committee chair for my local Relay For Life event for the American Cancer Society and will soon be a mentor at Loray Girls Home through my local Junior League chapter.

I have always been a bleeding heart. Some people say that makes me overly sensitive, but I think it makes me empathetic. For me, volunteering and supporting causes that speak to me has been something I’ve always felt compelled to do. Like, it wasn’t even an option for me not to. I can remember a time when I was little at church one Sunday when they were having a canned food drive for the Salvation Army. As my family was leaving, I looked down at the ten gallon buckets, not quite full of cans. I’m sure many people saw the cans and thought, Wow, look at all those cans! We did a good thing. Even at that young age, I remember thinking, Really? That’s all you’ve got?!

I am in no way belittling those people who donate a few canned goods here and there or give a few dollars every time an organization asks for it. If I’ve learned anything working in the nonprofit sector, it’s that every little but helps. But for me, it’s always been about what more could I do. Some people buy cans and donate them. I solicit (don’t cringe, it’s not always a bad thing…Girl Scouts solicit for cookies 🙂 ) every grocery store around to get more donations until my trunk is full. I guess that’s why I have a career in fundraising…

I’m the kind of girl who cried throughout the movie ‘Blood Diamond’ and then, infuriated, immediately went online to research the blood diamond conflict. (FYI, Brilliant Earth is the leader is certified conflict-free diamonds and they’re gorgeous). What can I say? I believe in causes. I stay up nights thinking about the man that knocked on my car window in a parking lot to ask for a place to take a shower because he hadn’t had a place to stay in 6 months. I think about children in Africa who die from curable and avoidable diseases because they don’t have access to clean water. I think about the men and women serving overseas and those they love at home, constantly worrying about when they’re coming home and if they’re safe. I think about children who can’t afford to go to school or have big dreams for their lives. I think about women all over the world who are forced to marry men they don’t love because they’ve reached that age and their father can’t or won’t provide for them any longer. I think about the women in the Middle East who must hide behind headscarves and men because their culture deems them inferior says they must. I think about those people battling diseases and fighting to have hope. For some reason I always picture the eyes, in despair yet still smiling in the creases. Their eyes are both haunting and hopeful.

Me and Dana (former boss, cancer survivor and inspiration) at Relay in 2010

Last night we had our annual kickoff for Relay For Life. Every year it serves as a passionate reminder of why I have supported them for so long. Every single person on God’s green earth is affected by cancer in some way. They have/had it or they know a friend or relative who has battled cancer. It is definitely a disease that doesn’t discriminate. It is widespread across borders, cultures and backgrounds. Our guest speaker last night shared an acronym to remember when telling others about the American Cancer Society and what they do – EARS (Education, Advocacy, Research, Services). Since I first began volunteering with Relay in 2007, I’ve had many friends who have had famly members diagnosed with cancer and come to me with questions. ACS offers an abundance of services and programs that so many people don’t even know about (mostly because they prefer to use as few fundraising dollars as possible for marketing). Look Good, Feel Better provides wigs for women and teaches them how to cope with skin changes and hair loss using cosmetics and skin care products. Road to Recovery provides rides for patients who need transportation to and from treatment. Reach to Recovery provides support for women with breast cancer and Man to Man provides support for men with prostate cancer. All of these programs are possible because of donations and fundraising dollars through events like Relay. This year alone, over 4 million people will participate in Relay For Life all over the country and in 20 other countries. Just click on the link below to watch the video…it will pull at your heartstrings.

The Relay Story

The American Cancer Society isn’t the only nonprofit I advocate for. The nonprofits I support by word-of-mouth, monetarily, with my time, through prayer, warm thoughts, etc:
Holy Angels – the organization that pays me to do something I love
American Cancer Society – former employer and the organization I give my volunteer spare time to. If you’d like to support me and Relay For Life, please visit my personal fundraising page by clicking here!
Loray Girls Home – my upcoming volunteer placement for Junior League
Charity Water – an organization I would totally relocate to NYC to potentially work for someday…
Compassion International – I used to sponsor a girl named Gelmy in Central America
Diyana’s Hope, aka Someday We’d Like to Fund a Children’s Cancer Center in Sri Lanka – a nonprofit in the works with my bff, Jayni (pictured below)

Diyana & Jayni (before Diyana's diagnosis)

To learn more about any of these organizations, please visit their websites (by clicking their name) or contact me. There are a million nonprofits that are doing amazing things to make the world a better place. I’m not saying that you should go out and volunteer for all of them. I’m also not saying you should be the same bleeding heart I am. Although it would be great if everyone gave their time and money to help others, I also know that we need those rational thinkers (realists, pessimists) that take a step back and think, What are they really going to do with that money? Are they going to buy food or drugs? I give whatever cash I have to someone if they look like they need it, but those people think about the cause-effect relationship and find other ways to do good. The world needs those people, too.

I volunteer because, for me, it’s something I have to do. What would (or does) compel you to give? Whatever your cause or fight, I hope you let it fuel your passion for giving and making the world a better, more peaceful place to live. Despite what you might think, one person can make a difference. Relay For Life started with one doctor who ran around a track for 24 hours straight, raising $27,000 all on his own. Today, Relay is the single largest not for profit activity. Inspiring, isn’t it?

I’ll leave you with one final quote to ponder: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead