For more than eight years, the Step Sisters of Loudoun County have fought breast cancer by taking aim at the disease itself, raising more than half a million dollars to help researchers find a cure.
But now, as the nonprofit organization’s leaders have seen a mounting number of community members affected by the day-to-day challenges of breast cancer, the Brambleton-based group recently announced that it will shift its focus to directly supporting local patients who are undergoing treatment for the disease.
“When we originally started this group, we knew we wanted to make a big difference,” said Ashley Campolattaro, the organization’s vice president. “By pivoting in this new direction, we know we are making a meaningful impact locally.”
The group announced the change ahead of its largest annual fundraiser, the Ribbon Run, which will be Saturday at Brambleton Town Center. Past events have raised tens of thousands of dollars for breast cancer research, but this year, the money will used to offer much-needed services — including transportation to and from medical appointments, housecleaning and fresh food delivery — to breast cancer patients at Inova Loudoun Hospital.
“These services might seem like little things, but they make a big difference,” Campolattaro said.
She knows about the demands of breast cancer treatment from her family’s experience: In 2005, Campolattaro’s mother was diagnosed with the disease. That same year, the Step Sisters began as an unofficial group of neighbors and friends, rallied by Campolattaro to join the Avon Foundation for Women’s Walk for Breast Cancer in the District.
As the group swelled to include dozens of survivors, patients, parents, siblings, children and friends who had been affected by breast cancer, the Step Sisters decided to host their own event to raise funds for breast cancer research. The first Ribbon Run was in 2007, and the group was established as a nonprofit organization soon after.
“The first year, there were 10 of us participating in the Avon walk,” Campolattaro said. “The following year, it doubled.”
The group’s growth, she said, was unfortunately due in part to more breast cancer diagnoses among women in the community — “our peers, young moms who now had breast cancer,” she said. “Every year, we had another reason, sadly, to walk. ”
Angela Fuentes was one of those reasons. Fuentes joined the group in 2009, the year after she received a diagnosis of breast cancer as a 34 year-old mother of two. The Step Sisters walked in her honor as she underwent surgery and chemotherapy treatments, she said.
“In my head, I said, ‘When I’m done with everything I have to do, I want to be a part of this group,’ ” she said. “I wanted to do for others what has been done for me.”
Five cancer-free years later, Fuentes said, she still remembers how much it mattered to have such a strong support network. Her husband always took her to appointments, and family members and friends gave her so many meals that she needed a second refrigerator. So when Campolattaro first talked to Fuentes about shifting the Step Sisters’ attention toward meeting those same needs for other patients, Fuentes said, “it just made sense to take it in that direction.”
Campolattaro said she was inspired by a group that provided similar services to her mother when she was undergoing treatment at a hospital in Maryland. A Baltimore-area organization called the Red Devils offered housecleaning services, prepared meals and provided a massage session, Campolattaro said.
She kept thinking of that organization as the Step Sisters continued to thrive. “In our minds, we were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t that be cool if we could do that, too?’ ”
Campolattaro and Fuentes met with the Red Devils last year to learn more about their organizational model and how to launch the same kind of program in Northern Virginia.
“When we left that meeting, we both said, ‘That is what we want to do,’ ” Fuentes said. “I said to Ashley, ‘I want to do what you all did for me.’ ”
The program began in January through Inova Loudoun Hospital, where the hospital’s breast care navigators help connect patients to the services offered by the Step Sisters. Because of patient privacy rules, the nonprofit group does not interact directly with the patients or determine who receives services.
“The breast care navigators are the ones interacting with patients on a daily basis. They know who missed treatment because they didn’t have a way to get there, or who really needs an emotional pick-me-up,” Campolattaro said. “We’re still learning, and working out some of the kinks, and working to build a really strong program” at Inova.
Fuentes said she would love to see the program expand to other hospitals across Northern Virginia, joining the ranks of other local nonprofit organizations such as the Loudoun Breast Health Network and the Fairfax Breast Health Network, which also offer day-to-day support services to breast cancer patients.
“That would definitely be my goal,” Fuentes said. “Any place that has a breast cancer division, we would definitely like to be involved there . . . we’d like to have Northern Virginia covered.”
The Step Sisters’ patient-focused program is still new, but Campolattaro said it has already received anonymous feedback from patients who were grateful for a delivery of organic fruits and vegetables, or for a ride to a treatment appointment.
“We just really want our impact to be felt locally,” she said. “We don’t interact with the patients ourselves, but we know we’re doing good.”
Information about the Step Sisters and the Ribbon Run is at www.stepsisters.org.