“Cara is like my hero in life,” breast cancer survivor Tammie Dilla said of Atkinson, himself a cancer survivor and the founder of the Ellwood City-based Club Hope Foundation. The nonprofit helps patients and families affected by cancer.
With the arrival of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month starts every year.
But for Cara Atkinson and the Ellwood City-based Club Hope Foundation, supporting cancer patients through fundraising, financial and emotional support is a year-round endeavor.
Atkinson, who fought her own battle with cancer 14 years ago, started Club Hope in 2008 as a Lincoln High School organization. Students at six schools are now sharing in the effort, which has also turned into a nonprofit foundation that provides encouragement, services and hope to patients and families affected by a cancer diagnosis.
Flower Gardens of Hope Signs created by primary school students working with the Club Hope Foundation encourage cancer patients to come to the Mayzon Health Center in New Castle.
Throughout the year, the foundation provides items such as flowers, gift cards for restaurants and groceries, gas cards, edible packages and other items to help cancer patients. It also has a program that supplies wooden horses to children diagnosed with cancer, and an annual photo shoot called “Golden Scars of Hope” that helps women realize that surgical scars they may feel insecure about are actually “someone’s other people’s hopes for tomorrow.” ”
“We also added three new cancer treatment centers (with which the foundation is partnering) this summer,” Atkinson said. “We’ve added a local, the AHN Cancer Institute, New Castle. That’s where we brought our displays and that’s where we brought chemo/radiation bags to the patients.
“And we provide gas maps and other things to patients who learn about us at that location.”
One of the foundation’s most recent events was the second annual Home Run Derby in September. Participants who raise any amount in donations will be assigned 10 swings, but $100 will get them 11, $200 will get them 12, and so on.
The event raised $20,000 a year ago and another $25,000 last month.
“Parents were fundraising through Facebook and giving this to their families,” Atkinson said. “This is so great because our most important thing, besides helping patients and families and spreading hope, is teaching children and teens to get involved in something bigger than themselves.”
Efforts to educate and inspire young people continue through a craft program in 2020 that involved creating signs of hope and placing them outside cancer centers to encourage patients inside.
“They got such good feedback that we decided to do these kinds of seasonal projects,” Atkinson said.
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“The one we did during the school year and summer was called Flower Gardens of Hope.
“We took a picture of a flower, one that we had just drawn on paper, and 120 primary school kids colored these flowers and they wrote words like ‘Strength’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Resilient’, ‘You Can Do This’ , and we’ve blown them up to yard signs and they’re all around all 10 cancer facilities that we help.
But even in the midst of a busy year, the special significance of October is not forgotten.
“The Pink Out Challenge continues this year and we have involved six schools: Ellwood City, Beaver Falls, Central Valley, Shenango, Riverside and Mill Creek Township in Erie,” Atkinson said.
The challenge starts with students in each school selling pink T-shirts as a fundraiser. Those sales are now closed so the shirts will be in in time for October. However, schools will continue to raise money throughout the month.
“Things you can sell are things like pink candy, pink lemonade, dress up day, to see which school is raising the most money,” Atkinson said.
In Shenango, junior high guidance counselor Deanna Othites oversaw what Atkinson said was a school-record sale of 202 shirts that students will wear to the Wildcats’ Pink Out Night football game on Oct. 22.
“We’ve helped sell T-shirts and moved on from there,” Othites said. “We plan to sell pink towels in October, kind of like Steelers towels.”
And when October kicks in, the holidays come to the fore.
“I just ordered crafts for Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’ll be having kids make and send out over the holidays,” Atkinson said.
“I had to buy barely 1,000 for each holiday. That’s how many people we help.”