Team Heather hopes to move past Komen flap, continue fundraising

Heather Gardner Starcher died before Facebook was born. But if she had lived, her brother says she would have spent these last few days furiously writing on her wall, telling people to calm down.

She would have chastised those who cheered the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, which many saw as a bow to antiabortion activists, and admonished those who said they could no longer contribute to an organization that puts politics before women. She would have recognized that by the time Komen revised its decision Friday, the damage had been done.

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Susan G. Komen Foundation reversed course and dropped its ban on grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. (Feb. 3)

Susan G. Komen Foundation reversed course and dropped its ban on grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. (Feb. 3)

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“She would say, ‘Shame on all of you,’ ” Shawn Gardner said. “She would say, ‘Well, you’ve shown where your true interest and motivation and focus lie, and it certainly isn’t for the disease that took my life.’ ”

Eleven years ago, Gardner’s sister rolled over in bed and felt an unfamiliar lump. She soon learned she had an advanced stage of breast cancer. She was 25. That year, Heather and Shawn walked in their first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in the District. They did it again the next year even as the cancer spread to Heather’s brain.

Now, nine years after the death of the woman who inspired its name, “Team Heather” is listed as the top fundraiser for the D.C. race, one of the largest in the country. Last year, according to Komen’s Web site, nearly 40,000 people participated in the D.C. event, raising more than $5 million.

It is too early to tell how Komen’s decision to cease funding Planned Parenthood — followed by its shifted stance — will affect its final fundraising figures this year. The D.C. race isn’t until June 2. But there’s no denying that for an organization that depends heavily on grass-roots efforts, the effect will largely depend how teams across the country handle the fallout.

And for at least one, Team Heather, the past few days have been trying.

“The word I’ve been clinging to was rudderless,” said Gardner, a teacher at South County Secondary School in Fairfax. “We are battered and bruised and beaten up and learned a great deal in this short process.”

They learned where people stood and, perhaps more important, where they weren’t willing to stand. As Twitter and Facebook revealed a country polarized, so did Gardner’s inbox. The e-mails hit the extremes, from people who were thrilled because they felt they could now donate to the organization to one from a woman who accused Komen of wanting control over her uterus.

“Shawn,” one e-mail reads, “as much as it pained me to do it because of my history with Team Heather, my affection for you, and my respect for your hard work over the years, I have notified Komen that I will withhold further support until this unfortunate policy is reversed.”

‘Red flags’ raised

The Komen organization’s board of directors and the group’s founder and chief executive, Nancy G. Brinker, issued an apology to the public Friday and said the foundation would continue funding existing grants, including Planned Parenthood’s. “We do not want our mission marred or affected by politics — anyone’s politics,” a news release read.

The announcement did little to put at ease Chris Perrault, 47, of the District. He has been a member of Team Heather for years and participated in a 100-mile race in July, raising more than $12,000 for Komen. Now, he said, he questions whether he can trust the organization.

“It has for me raised red flags,” Perrault said. “I think they’ve handled it badly from start to finish.”

He said that he intends to keep raising money for breast cancer research, which is important to him because his mother is a survivor, but that he doesn’t have to send it to Komen. “I need to see how this plays out,” he said.

Team Heather, which can vary from 40 to 80 members in any given year, has established a reputation as a money-collecting machine, raising over the years more than $375,000. Members have collected nearly $17,000 this year, an amount well above the team’s usual target this early on.

But Gardner said he doesn’t know if those who abandoned the team will come back or if those who pledged donations for the first time will follow through.

What is clear is that the foundation has tainted what has been for him and many others a deeply meaningful experience.

“I don’t know what my team is going to look like, and I don’t know what that first Saturday in June will look like,” Gardner said of race day. “My hope is that for the thousands of survivors who are going to be there and the women who are currently in their own battles with breast cancer, that the focus remains on them.”

‘Staying focused’

In 2010, Komen released a report that found that women diagnosed with breast cancer in Washington were more likely to die than the national average. For every 100,000 people diagnosed, Washington had 28.1 deaths, compared with 23.4 deaths in the United States. In Ward 7, the figure was 32.9; in Arlington County, 25.4.

On Sandra Reynolds’s living room wall in Fairfax hangs a photo of her, bald and beaming with pride. It was taken two weeks after her last chemotherapy treatment, on the day she first participated in the D.C. race with Team Heather.

“I’m sure I wasn’t as strong as I felt,” she said. “But it’s such an empowering thing.”

Since that day in 2007, she has walked in two races and run in three. On average, she raises about $1,500 a year, and she doesn’t expect to lose many donations this year.

“I think people who contribute to me are still going to do it,” Reynolds, 49, said. “They’re contributing because of what I’ve gone through.”

Each member of the team has a different way of pulling in funds.

One man collects cans and bottles. One woman auctions off tickets for her hometown football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. At South County Secondary School, the faculty and students hold a talent show. In the past five years, the school has raised more than $45,000 for Team Heather.

The show is scheduled for March 28, and Principal Jane Lipp said recent events have not changed that.

“We don’t get into the politics of it,” Lipp said. “We’re really about staying focused on our cause, which is breast cancer research and supporting our families.”

 
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