Cary News: Community

Daughter’s death sparks Mike Winters’ zeal for fundraising

Mike Winters knows it was an unusual case of breast cancer that took his daughter’s life just four months after she gave birth. She was only 30, and her doctors had attributed the symptoms of her rapidly spreading cancer to a difficult pregnancy.

But his grief propelled him to help other women who might still be saved. Just a few months after Kristi’s death four years ago, Winters’ law firm pulled together a team that raised more than $30,000 for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s annual NC Triangle Race for the Cure. The next two years, Kristi’s Crew was the top fundraising group and broke consecutive records for the amount raised.

On Saturday, Kristi’s Crew was again a top fundraiser. In all, the group has contributed more than $200,000 to Komen over the past four years.

But Winter’s involvement goes beyond the annual race and fundraising drive, says Kathy Burns, interim director for Komen’s Triangle affiliate. Winters also volunteers on the development committee, and last year worked on handing out grants.

“He’s done a great job with his team, but more than that, he’s just so dedicated to this cause,” says Burns, also a longtime volunteer and board member.

New energy for charity

Winters, 59, grew up in Raleigh and Cary, attending Cary High School and earning both his degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He has a longtime interest in sports, and met his wife, Anne, at the Hillsborough Street YMCA in Raleigh, where they both worked with youth sports programs in the summer while they were in college.

It was in Chapel Hill that his interests moved from the ball field to a wider stage. The draft ended just before he would have been drafted for the Vietnam War, and the entire country was mired in protests. He also became more acutely aware of how fortunate his upbringing had been.

“When I got to school, it really opened my eyes to a lot of things that were going on,” he says. “I got the idea that I was blessed, and should share my blessings with others.”

He worked at a large law firm out of college, and then left with several colleagues to form their own, smaller firm, which now has about 35 attorneys at locations in Cary and Greensboro.

Winters and his wife had always given money to charity. But it was their daughter’s sudden death in 2009 that gave them a new focus and energized them to give time in addition to money.

“Our giving had always been to lots of different things without a particular focus or motivation,” says Winters. “And then all of a sudden it was so personal.”

Kristi was in the midst of her third pregnancy when she started having terrible backaches and headaches. Her doctors thought she had a liver disease that would resolve itself after she had the baby.

They delivered the baby early, and it was only then that doctors discovered the cancer. By the time they diagnosed her, it had spread to her liver and bones. She lived only a few months, undergoing treatments while Winters and his wife took over the care of Kristi’s small children.

Competitive in fundraising

Winters says his co-workers, who saw him through the time when he spent many days at the office in tears, organized the first Komen team on his behalf. The firm also sponsors an annual golf tournament for the Pretty in Pink Foundation.

The first race was emotional for Winters. Only a few months had passed since Kristi’s death, and the tragedy was still raw.

The sight of 20,000 people gathered at Meredith College, including breast cancer survivors, some healthy and others still suffering, put his tragedy in a larger perspective.

“You look at Hillsborough Street and there’s jam-packed people, and it’s just astounding,” he says. “It brings it home in a way you just can’t appreciate otherwise.”

The fundraising side of it also piqued the competitive instincts of the law firm and the circle of donors they had recruited. They were the second-highest fundraisers the first year, and aimed to make it to the top the second year.

They succeeded, and have kept that as their goal ever since.

“It’s healthy competition,” he says. “If someone raises more than we do, that’s great. It’s more money for a good cause.”