CARY — For Jill Wolford, giving thanks is a year-round activity.
In the 12 years since she emerged from her battle with breast cancer, the Cary mother of two has shown her gratitude by raising money to help other local families face that fight.
The effort, now called Caring Community Foundation, started with a passed hat at a backyard barbecue Wolford threw to thank her friends for their support during her illness. This year, the foundation celebrated raising more than $1 million that has helped 1,500 families.
“I would never have dreamed that we would have reached this point when we first started,” says Wolford, 48. “We’ve done more than I ever imagined.”
The group holds an annual Pay It Forward party in September and participates in other events throughout the year. Volunteers have also made and distributed 500 quilts to children who are undergoing cancer treatment or who have been affected by a family member’s illness.
The money goes directly to local families referred by hospitals and clinics; the only requirement is that they be in treatment for cancer and need help with medical bills, rent or other expenses.
“I continue to be bowled over by the enthusiasm and dedication of this group of people,” said Deborah Newsome, a breast cancer survivor who recently started volunteering for the foundation. “Jill is an amazing lady.”
Support from others
Born in New York, Wolford moved to Greensboro when she was in middle school. Her father worked for a furniture manufacturer there, and eventually opened his own typewriter supply business.
Wolford was always outgoing; her father expected her to go into social work. But at UNC-Chapel Hill, she instead entered the pharmacy program. She worked at a retail pharmacy, and then at Rex Hospital, before going into pharmaceutical development with GlaxoSmithKline.
Having worked in health care, Wolford understood how illness could wrack the body. But her own illness also taught her how much of a logistical challenge it can be to fall ill.
She was in her early 30s when she was diagnosed, with two young children and a home in the middle of a renovation project.
The younger child was nursing, and had started to avoid one of her breasts. Her father had suffered from breast cancer – a form of cancer rare in men, which led Wolford to believe she was strongly predisposed to the disease.
Her doctors had not detected the tumor, but when one Friday Wolford told them of her suspicions, they had her tested. By Monday, they had identified a cancerous mass the size of a grapefruit in her right breast.
After her initial shock, she settled into the nine-month treatment that included chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant.
Eventually, both of her breasts and her ovaries were removed. She lost and recovered her hair, though it never returned to its original abundance, and her eyebrows never returned.
But Wolford hardly blinked at these misfortunes. Instead of leading to despair, the ordeal quickly changed her perspective for the better.
“Your life changes in a split second,” she says. “Nothing becomes more important than surviving and your health and staying with your family.”
While Wolford was focused on her treatment, friends and family quickly jumped in to help: caring for the two children, cleaning the house, bringing meals. Her co-workers created a SWAT committee, short for “Support Wolford at All Times,” that assigned people to specific tasks.
But on her travels to various hospitals, she saw not everyone had such support, and that thought plagued her after she recovered. Cancer was hard for her to beat, even with financial resources and the help of dozens of people, Making her wonder: How hard was it for people who lacked those things?
A foundation expands
Caring Community Foundation grew slowly from that question. In 2000, Wolford and her husband planned a thank-you barbecue for friends and neighbors. Shortly before the event, they decided to pass around a bucket to collect money for a family struggling with cancer, asking everyone to throw in enough for a burger and a beer.
They had no one in mind for the money, so after the first collection, they brought $724 to Wolford’s oncologist. The bucket had a lot of change and small bills, but there was also a $100 bill.
Seeing it, Wolford wondered how many other large bills there might have been if she had given her friends more notice.
The woman who received the money was terminally ill, but she replied with a thank-you letter, saying she was glad her young son would grow up in a world with people as kind as Wolford. (Years later, after the woman had died, Wolford was reunited with the son, who spoke at one of the group’s annual parties.)
The second year, the party grew to include a band, a raffle and door prizes. It raised about $5,000. This year’s event, held in September at the Renaissance Hotel at North Hills, drew 500 guests and raised more than $200,000.
Wolford says she spends five to 10 hours a week doing foundation work these days, down from at least 20 hours a week when it started.
Wolford attributes her lightened load to a core of about 100 volunteers. Starting with Wolford and a few friends, the volunteer base has expanded steadily, particularly in the past few years. This year, the group hired its first paid employee, a part-time, grant-funded position.
Still, the foundation’s phone rings directly to Wolford’s house, and it’s not unusual for a cancer patient seeking help to talk to her first.
The group then works quickly to fill immediate needs, whether it’s paying a mortgage so a dying patient can stay at home or paying for a babysitter while a mom gets chemotherapy treatments. Most requests run between $700 and $800.
A good number of people who receive help come back to the organization to volunteer. Others lose their fight with cancer. But Wolford is glad to have eased the burden on all of them and their families.
“We know how lucky we were because we saw others who weren’t so fortunate,” Wolford says. “That’s part of why we give back.”
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