Had Ashley Fister Cole lived, there never would have been a charity golf tournament in her honor. Nor would nearly 250 people have turned out for a movie benefit, held by a nonprofit foundation named for her, to raise money for cancer research.
Instead, Ashley Cole would have been a kindergarten teacher and perhaps a mother, living with her husband, Brian Cole, in their Fairfax home.
But when she was 28, Ashley died of melanoma, a virulent form of skin cancer. Her death in 2002 led her husband and family to launch the Ashley Fister Cole Foundation, which on Sept. 16 will hold its third annual golf tournament, its major fundraiser of the year. So far, the foundation has collected more than $30,000 for cancer research.
"We just knew we wanted to give something back" to melanoma researchers and cancer survivors who helped Ashley fight the disease, said Brian Cole, 35.
The Ashley Fister Cole Foundation is one of a growing number of Fairfax area organizations that have been started by family members to fund research or help others suffering from a disease that killed a loved one. People have always donated money to charities following the death of a close relative, friend or neighbor. But the establishment of nonprofit foundations with year-round activities has taken such giving to a new level, as families devote time and effort to setting up an organization with long-term goals.
No one keeps track of the number of these foundations, so it is impossible to ascertain how many charities in Fairfax -- or anywhere else -- have been established in the name of a deceased person to benefit others. But the groups are sprouting up all the time.
On Saturday, a group of Northern Virginia residents will hold a charity golf tournament at the Westfields Golf Club in Clifton in memory of Pam McDonald, a 57-year-old Oakton mother of two who died of ovarian cancer in 2002. Family members and friends set up the Pam McDonald Fund to direct their grief and energy toward raising money to help ovarian cancer patients pay their medical bills and support research on the disease.
Officials at the Johns Hopkins Ovarian Cancer Center of Excellence recently told the McDonald Fund that they had identified two patients to receive contributions from the organization. Money will also go to the Cancer Research and Prevention Foundation.
John Guandolo of Vienna has ambitious plans for his organization, Destination Cure, a nonprofit that raises money for multiple sclerosis research in memory of his mother, Evelyn M. Guandolo. She battled MS for more than 30 years before she died in 2000 at age 62.
In the last two years, Destination Cure has taken in about $200,000 from individuals who have raised money running in road races, holding bake sales -- even hosting games of bunco, a game played with dice, said Guandolo.
"We allow people to do anything," said Guandolo, 39. "You use your imagination and you initiate."
Guandolo, a former Marine who works for the U.S. Department of Justice, and his friends have run marathons and competed in triathlons, raising money by soliciting pledges from donors. The group has gathered 46 people -- its largest team -- to run in the Marine Corps marathon on Oct. 30.
All of the proceeds from events go directly to researchers, Guandolo said. He said he hopes to eventually raise tens of millions of dollars each year for MS research.
For Steve and Ellen Tomczyk of Springfield, their charity, Cole's Closet, has been a source of comfort since their 6-month-old son Cole died in 1999. Doctors were never able to diagnose the ailment that killed him.
Cole's Closet operates "toy closets" in four local hospitals that provide new toys to hospitalized children and their siblings.
The program got started almost by accident, said Ellen Tomczyk, when the family held a get-together a year after Cole's death and asked guests to bring a toy to donate to Inova Fairfax Hospital. To their surprise, they collected some 400 items.
"I think the Lord was pointing us in a direction," Tomczyk said.
They opened their first closet at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children in 2000 and have since opened others at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. To date, they have donated about 12,000 toys -- including CD players and PlayStation video game systems for pediatric wards -- by raising money through fundraisers such as yard sales, silent auctions and dinners.
But Cole's Closet has grown far beyond playthings. It has also pledged $10,000 toward the renovation of Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children and has launched an outreach program for the families of children hospitalized for long stretches, providing them with such items as phone cards, Starbucks and gasoline gift cards, and greeting cards bearing messages of support from the Tomczyks.
The organization has been a "huge healing path for us," said Ellen Tomczyk, a homemaker. "People say what a wonderful thing we're doing, and we say, 'No, you don't know what a help this is to us.' "
Brian Cole, Ashley Cole's husband, also said his work on the foundation has been a source of comfort.
Ashley was diagnosed with melanoma in March 1999, when she was 25, shortly after she met Brian.
Melanoma, an especially deadly form of skin cancer, hits young adults particularly hard and is the primary cause of cancer deaths among women ages 25 to 30.
The prognosis for Ashley was hopeful. She underwent surgery, including removal of her lymph nodes, and a year of drug treatment with interferon.
The side effects from the treatment were difficult, but Ashley made the best of it, family members said. She and Brian bought a house in Fairfax, where she planted daisies, lilies, clematis and tulips.
They traveled, and Ashley began a career switch from public relations to teaching. She enrolled in a master's program at the Northern Virginia campus of the University of Virginia and got a job as an instructional assistant in a kindergarten class at Wakefield Forest Elementary School in Fairfax.
She loved it, according to her own writings.
"I want to teach," she wrote in an essay. "I want to teach children their ABCs. I want to watch their eyes light up when they realize what happens when you heat sugar."
In January 2001, doctors declared Ashley cancer-free, and the couple began planning a family. "Everything was going fine," said Brian Cole, "until February 2002."
That's when a routine annual cancer scan found a tumor behind Ashley's breastbone, another under her left arm and another on her chest. There were lesions on her lungs, and other internal tumors and lesions so numerous they were inoperable.
The news came as a crushing blow, and meant Ashley faced another round of even more debilitating treatment.
"Can I do this again?" Ashley wrote in her diary. "I am so young. Too young to be dealing with issues of death and diseases. . . . I did my time. . . . Why now when I was finding peace again?"
And yet she tried to see the positive side. Some deathly ill children have to deal with sickness and dying at a much earlier age, she reminded herself.
"I should be grateful for the time I've had and still have and move forward," she wrote.
During her treatment, she went ahead with plans to participate in the 2002 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and raised almost $8,000.
Doctors tried aggressive chemotherapy and surgery. Ashley and Brian traveled to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for a drug trial.
Nothing stopped the disease from progressing. At 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2002, with her husband and family at her side, Ashley died.
Although it was the end of her life, it wasn't the end of Ashley's story. Brian's co-workers suggested that he set up a nonprofit to raise money for other melanoma sufferers. Shortly thereafter, the Ashley Fister Cole Foundation was born.
One evening last month, Ashley's mother, Judith Fister, her brother Geordy Fister and a friend she met at a cancer support group, Sarah Gannett, got together at Brian's house to sort through T-shirts for the foundation's upcoming golf tournament.
Brian hauled several boxes of shirts out of the basement and the group counted and sorted them by size. Each bore the Ashley Fister Cole Foundation's logo, designed by friends, which included Ashley's favorite flower, the gerbera daisy.
The previous week, 10 people had sat on Brian's deck to stuff 1,000 envelopes with fliers about the tournament at Bristow Manor Golf Club in Prince William County.
Brian came up with the tournament name, the Driving for Surviving Melanoma Charity Golf Classic. Last year's event raised $17,000, which went to melanoma researcher Wen-Jen Hwu at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, who treated Ashley for a while at Sloan-Kettering.
Donated items will be raffled off or sold at an auction, and area businesses and individuals are sponsoring holes.
The foundation recently hosted its third annual Morning at the Movies. The showing of "Madagascar," at the Lee Highway Multiplex in Merrifield, raised more than $4,000. The money finances a monthly melanoma support group at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Judith Fister said her work with the foundation has helped her handle her grief, but it hasn't eased it.
"It's been great to be able to rechannel some of the negative energy," Fister said. However, she added, "I found it hard to turn something so terrible into a positive, because it's never going to be positive."
Friends and family say that Brian, who works at the College Board offices in Reston, labors tirelessly on the foundation -- designing brochures, producing the twice-yearly newsletter and soliciting donations of food, gifts and cash for the events.
"Every time he goes into a restaurant, he hits up the manager for a gift certificate," said Sarah Gannett.
"You gotta ask," Brian said. "You never know what will happen."
For more information:
* The Ashley Fister Cole Foundation, www.ashleyfistercolefoundation.org, 703-323-4683.
* The Pam McDonald Fund, www.pammcdonaldfund.com. For more information about Saturday's tournament, call Mary Doherty at 301-493-5454 or Matt Blocher at 202-333-4274.
* Cole's Closet, www.colescloset.org.
Ashley Fister Cole of Fairfax was 28 when she died of melanoma, a virulent form of skin cancer, in 2002.
The Pam McDonald Fund is named for a 57-year-old Oakton mother of two who died of ovarian cancer in 2002.
In preparation for next week's third annual golf tournament fundraiser, Brian Cole, left, Sarah Gannett, Geordy Fister and Judith Fister sort T-shirts that bear the logo of the Ashley Fister Cole Foundation.
Cole's Closet is named for Cole Tomczyk of Springfield, who died in 1999 when he was 6 months old.