By Debbie Gardner
What do you do when an iconic fundraiser and the reality of a pandemic collide?
You pivot. You rethink. You adapt.
That’s exactly what the 27-year-old Rays of Hope Walk & Run Toward a Cure of Breast Cancer has done. The annual one-day fundraiser, which draws about 24,000 participants and has raised $15.4 million for research and programs to help local breast cancer patients since its inception in 1994, made a quick pivot in March. As Massachusetts began to shut down in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, the Rays of Hope steering committee began to reimagine a new kind of celebration for survivors and supporters. That meant rethinking everything from the walk itself to elements like the traditional water stop, the survivor photos and the tribute flags.
For this year’s event co-chairs, Jackie and Al Rodriguez, it also meant rethinking how to get the message out that the walk is still happening, and is still important to raising awareness in the community.
A tradition reimagined
“So many elements of the Rays of Hope Walk & Run add to the special feeling participants experience at the event and we wanted to be sure to keep that excitement to make sure participants still feel special,” said Michelle Graci, manager of events for the Baystate Health Foundation, which oversees Rays of Hope. “Those [elements] include our large pink arch, the jumbotron showing special messages, music to motivate and excite including with some of our entertainers, confetti, the highly collectible event t-shirt, a water stop, signing the tribute flags, our Survivors’ Photo, and celebrating our survivors and BIG WIGS [high-achieving fundraisers].”
Graci said the Rays of Hope steering committee partnered with Zasco Productions of Chicopee to plan a workable event in the era of COVID-19, and through the support of “generous sponsors” will be able to offer local breast cancer survivors and their supporters a celebration that combines a modified in-person, car- based “Parade of Hope” event on Oct. 25, as well as an online celebration. The Parade of Hope - which Graci noted is for those individuals who registered online - will take place at the Baystate Health Education Center, 361 Whitney Ave. in Holyoke from 8 to 11 a.m., instead of at Forest Park in Springfield. The Virtual Pink Celebration will take place online starting at noon
“We will be following the CDC guidelines on social distancing and will have everyone remain in the cars at all times during the Parade of Hope while still allowing them to feel the excitement of being there,” Graci said “A few examples of how we are making changes are with our Survivors’ Photo where we are asking breast cancer survivors to email us a photo of themselves which we will use to create a tapestry of images on the jumbotron to create the 2020 group photo and for our tribute flags which are traditionally signed by the participants, we are asking for submission of names prior to the event and our volunteers will sign the flags for them before we display them at the Parade of Hope.”
This year - walk anywhere!
As for the actual Rays of Hope walk and run, like so many other local fundraisers, it’s gone virtual, becoming a walk-where-you-are event. Now titled the Rays of Hope 2020 Challenge, the official website: baystatehealth.org/raysofhope, invites participants to register (and pay a $30 entrance fee to receive the coveted Rays of Hope t-shirt), fundraise for themselves or their team, and then “walk and run anywhere” up to Oct. 25.
The Rays of Hope offers traditional – and some new – ideas for fundraising, as well as support materials to help with the effort , “We added some resources that people can print and display as lawn signs or in their social media posts and we created a playlist on Spotify and YouTube to motivate and excite participants to get out and walk or run anywhere and any day they choose,” explained Graci. The website also offers participants the opportunity to access and print out a map that recreates the traditional Rays of Hope walk around the area of Forest Park in Springfield, offering either a 5-mile or an abbreviated 1.3 mile route to walk – or run – any day the participant chooses. They’re also asked to take a photo of themselves during their walk, and post it to their social media, using the hashtag #ROHVirtual2020.
A pivot for the walk co-chairs, too
Twenty-twenty has also presented challenges for this year's walk co–chairs Jackie and Al Rodriguez. The pair had visions of what this years walk would look like, but COVID–19 had other plans. Nevertheless they are still enthusiastic about getting the message out to the community in as many ways as possible under the new norm.
“Michelle and I have done virtual meetings, we've done a video, I’ve been working with social media and my personal profile to promote this year’s walk,” Jackie said.
Longtime supporters of the Rays of Hope event – Jackie was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer 10 years ago – the pair said they jumped at the chance to be the first Latinix chairs of the walk.
“We already knew that it would give us a bigger stage to get the message out,” Jackie said of their quick acceptance of the offer to chair 2020 that came from Graci and Kathy Tobin, director of Annual Giving and Events, Baystate Health Foundation.
“As co-chairs we are trying to incorporate a little bit of our culture and music” into this year’s event, Jackie said. “We’re trying to promote [the walk] to our inner city communities and minorities that someone like myself, as a minority can overcome breast cancer. I’m trying to wake up my community to make sure that this message is delivered to my own.”
Al explained to Prime that it was the programs and people at Rays of Hope that helped him through the “cultural shock” of learning his wife had breast cancer, and would need a double mastectomy, at age 40.
“It was devastating news for me,” he shared. “When you don't have anywhere to turn...the history of Rays of Hope and what they had to offer” was a literal lifesaver.
“We decided to participate that [first] year,” Al said of the annual walk they are now chairing for 2020. Their walk team, Las Luchadoras – it means ‘the fighter’ – boasts from 60 to 100 family members and friends annually, raising between $5,000 and $10,000 for Rays of Hope.
“We do everything we can – bus trips, pot luck dinners, bingos, so someday we can find a cure. Every little penny we could get goes to Rays of Hope. Without them we would not be where we are today,” Al said.
“Jackie and Al were so passionate and such phenomenal speakers and so supportive of what we do and what we try to do, we knew they could easily get our message out,” Graci said of the decision to offer the chair position to the Rodriguez couple. “Their family is so supportive...the energy around them is so phenomenal – with our theme for this year being ‘Family Means No One Faces Breast Cancer Alone’ – they were just the perfect fit.”
Jackie stressed the chance to share her message of the importance of mammograms for early detection, especially to other women in the Latino community, was a big factor in her decision to become this year’s Rays of Hope chair.
“When I mention [in my talks] that sometimes you just don't pick it up yourself, [women] say they think its enough ‘because I do my monthly exam,’ they say they don't need to do [a mammogram], and here comes Jackie and I say, ‘I was 40 and I didn’t even have a lump,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you have no lumps, [the cancer] could go undetected” without a mammogram.
Though their own fundraising plans have been sidelined – “My husband and I were thinking we wanted to do a black tie event, we were really raising our bar, and COVID came and shut it down for us ” Jackie said – they have found ways to keep the momentum going. For example, Graci said the couple has taken their very successful pocketbook fundraiser and converted it to an online event.
“Rays of Hope has a component where anybody can create a fundraiser” online, Graci said, adding Jackie and Al were able to convert their purse event to an online event “pretty easily.”
Graci, Jackie and Al hope fellow teams will follow their lead and find new ways to fundraise for this year’s Rays of Hope walk and run. “We’re putting our brains together to think of how we can promote it to team captains and co-captains to do things in the new norm,'' Jackie said. “When we first started we thought it would be a short term thing, now it’s a more normal way of life.”
For more information on how you can participate in and fundraise for this year’s Rays of Hope walk and run anywhere as an individual, or a team, visit baystatehealth.org/rays of hope.