Despite coronavirus, Cancer Society fundraiser unites thoughtful people

Even through the fog of uncertainty, created by a global pandemic, they still see those friends and family members enduring a breast cancer journey. Even amid all the tumult of 2020, they’re still touched by the opportunity to make a positive difference in our community and move us towards a world without breast cancer. Even during the challenges of a faltering economy, they still feel the sense of sisterhood generated by the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer movement.

Ultimate Medical Academy senior vice president Beth Garland and Seacoast Bank community banking director Susan Blackburn are the respective chairs of the Hillsborough and Pinellas Making Strides movement this year, and while the 2020 season will be unlike any other, they remain unbowed by the challenges and undaunted by this year’s unprecedented strife.

UMA Senior Vice President Beth Garland

For Blackburn and Garland, it’s personal. The American Cancer Society’s mission, and events, have enriched Blackburn’s life, in part because when she engages, she carries the thoughts of friends who have been challenged by the horrors of cancer.

She simply can’t stop now.   

“Though dollars are indeed stretched any time there are life-altering priorities, the emotional connections to Making Strides transcend all people not bound by generations, geographies, economics or cultures,” says Blackburn, who has spent years participating, and chairing, American Cancer Society fundraisers such as Strides and the Cattle Barons Ball. “When you see a community come together, mobilized in the fight against breast cancer, it’s clear that, with people doing what they can, the show must go on.”

Garland couldn’t agree more. Since 2015, she’s personally merged thoughts and prayers about colleagues and friends with her Strides involvement.

“Like almost everyone, cancer has touched my family, my friends and my colleagues,” Garland says. “I’ve been so fortunate that my family members survived (my aunt and cousin—who was diagnosed while pregnant), but sadly some of my mother’s best friends, who were instrumental in my life, died due to this horrible disease.

“I have several friends who are facing their own cancer journey and are in different stages of treatment. They are all so strong to go through the multiple treatments and I’ve been inspired by their resiliency and fighting spirits”

Inspiration fuels the will of Garland and Blackburn, but they must find new ways to drive the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer mission in 2020.

In 2019, a combined total of more than 60,000 people attended Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Sarasota Strides. But this year, ACS will merge those events into a virtual, national weekend celebration on October 17 and October 18.

The large, in-person, events had to be shelved to ensure safety, and that decision has volunteers, and supporters, finding creative new ways to show their Strides spirit while pushing to help make up for a fundraising shortfall created by COVID-19.

Because of the suspension of other 2020 fundraisers, COVID-19 could reduce the Society’s ability to fund cancer research by 50 percent in 2020—the lowest investment this century.

ACS has adopted the mantra “Fund The Future,” knowing that research setbacks today could adversely influence life-saving treatments tomorrow.

“It’s clearly an odd time for bringing people together,” Blackburn said. “Yet there’s a story to tell, awareness to create and funds to be raised. Creative messaging, technology and social distanced walks will happen throughout our community in the walk against breast cancer.

“It will be different than any other year, but the message will resonate as always and as loudly.”

Blackburn waves to the crowd at the 2018 Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Tampa event with co-chair, and local attorney, Marilyn Healy.

 Seacoast Bank has supported Making Strides Against Breast Cancer since 2017, including teams and sponsorship across the entire Seacoast footprint in Florida. The Strides initiative aligns with the fourth of our Four Promises—to invest in you and your community. In 2020, their support continues with team fundraising engagement planned for 10 events.

Both business leaders note that getting involved in philanthropic efforts creates rewarding experiences for their organizations as well. Blackburn says every time she has served on a board or worked on an initiative, it’s helped build trust among fellow professionals and led to business opportunities for her bank.

For Garland, community participation can help UMA create connections between healthcare employers, and skilled graduates, and spark new partnerships with vendors.

But make no mistake, it’s moral imperatives, and community commitment, that have Garland and Blackburn taking on the role as Strides chairs.

“In its simplest meaning, it’s just the right thing to do,” Blackburn says.

Garland is helping the Ultimate Medical Academy team do the right thing by reaching new heights in 2020. In 2019, UMA set a new mark for the nation’s largest Strides team with 1,150 registered walkers. This year, it’s pushing to surpass 2,500 walkers.

Beyond UMA, Garland has already witnessed teams, throughout the region, sustain their passion with resilient energy. Even though fundraising has grown more difficult because of the economic downturn, she’s seeing volunteers step up to the challenge.

“Everything has changed, but I think people are seeing the true potential of a nationwide event. Teams are creatively fund-raising, they are deciding how, and where, to walk safely and they are coming together (virtually) with a sense of determination and spirit.

Susan Blackburn

“Soon you will start seeing pink yard signs pop up, thanks to one of our generous sponsors. We are going to turn Tampa Bay pink this October.”

Garland and Blackburn both realize Making Strides Against Breast Cancer has always been more than an event, it’s a movement—a movement they’ve eagerly embraced even though difficult times that could have caused them to recoil.

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