Philanthropy Never Tasted So Good
A weekend full of food and friends unfolds at The Greenbrier Resort, celebrating cancer survivors and the achievements of the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center in Morgantown.
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For more than a quarter century, people have been gathering at The Greenbrier to celebrate the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center’s (MBRCC) continued growth. In 2011, the 26th annual gala featured big names like Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball” and guest chef and author André Soltner. Cancer survivors and their families, physicians, politicians, and patrons from across the state come together to support the cause every year.
With food comes fellowship, and for gala goers, it’s not only about raising awareness and support, but also the weekend-long epicurean experience one would come to expect from a top-notch event at The Greenbrier Resort. From the gala’s inception in 1986, when seven chefs came together to make food the focus, the culinary component has been a big part of the gala’s success. Over the years, food celebrities like Parisian cooking school founder, Anne Willian, former Gourmet magazine editor Sara Moulton, former White House Executive Chef Walter Scheib, restaurateur and “Top Chef” contestant Bryan Voltaggio, food writer Dorie Greenspan, and even Julia Child have lent their talents to the event that helps fund West Virginia’s state-of-the-art facility.
The center first opened in 1990, but efforts to get it started really became visible during the first gala five years earlier. Talk of needing a comprehensive cancer center in Morgantown began even before that, after President Nixon declared war on cancer in the 1970s and the National Cancer Program was established. Comprehensive cancer centers were being developed throughout the country, and West Virginia University saw the need for one as none existed in the region. By 1984, WVU had recruited and developed a core team of cancer researchers focused on specific problems facing West Virginia and submitted its cancer research plan for National Cancer Institute (NCI) funding. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jennings Randolph helped to secure an NCI grant of $13.1 million, and a $1.5 million appropriation from the state of West Virginia, along with private donations, completed the funding for the $15 million construction. The center was named the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center of West Virginia in memory of the late wife of Senator Randolph. Mary, a native of Keyser, died from colon cancer in 1981 and left a legacy of social work.
In 1985, friends and supporters—people like Jean DeLynn, Rita Solomon, and Gayle Swanson of Morgantown—organized the first statewide fundraising extravaganza, or gala, at The Greenbrier Resort. The first gala weekend raised $165,000, and hundreds of people now attend the event each year contributing a significant amount to the center.
Dr. Scot Remick, cancer center director, says the center is raising awareness of cancer risks through screenings and by working with leaders throughout the state, and the gala helps to bring it all together. “The cancer center’s mission is to provide multidisciplinary care of outstanding quality for patients and their families who are living with a cancer diagnosis,” he says.
The MBRCC is now the region’s most comprehensive cancer treatment, research, and education facility—crucial considering that West Virginia has the third highest cancer mortality rates in the nation. The efforts of the cancer center continue to grow, from providing education through the West Virginia Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening Program to the development of the West Virginia Oncology Society and the statewide clinical trials network in 2007.
In 2009, another new program—Bonnie’s Bus—was implemented. Bonnie’s Bus is a self-contained mobile unit that travels across West Virginia to provide mammograms. Since its launch, nearly 1,200 women in communities with the highest breast cancer mortality rates have received mammograms. The program was the dream of Jo and Ben Statler, whose tremendous gift of $25 million to the cancer center included that the first $5 million would establish the Bonnie Wells Wilson Mobile Mammography Program (Bonnie’s Bus), the Jo and Ben Statler Eminent Scholar and Chair in Breast Cancer Research, and the Bonnie Wells Wilson Eminent Scholar and Distinguished Professorship in Breast Cancer.
Jo’s mother, Bonnie Wells Wilson, grew up in the Morgantown area and died from breast cancer in 1992. Jo says she and her husband wanted to start a program like Bonnie’s Bus to give more women a fighting chance. “So many women won’t have to suffer the way my mom did,” she says. Bonnie never had a mammogram, found the lump on her own, and had a difficult time convincing her doctor. “Had there been a mammogram, it would have been diagnosed at a much earlier stage, and maybe she would be here today,” says Jo.
Fortunately, there are many survivor stories since the cancer center started and much of that is shared during the annual gala. Organizers say the celebration is a chance for the community to learn about new research and visit with doctors in a non-clinical environment, too. “To see them in a social setting is nice,” says Aly Goodwin Gregg, a past co-chair of the gala. The gala plays a big part in helping the center to continue its research, as well as pay for the capital expansion that more than doubled the center’s size—now 23,000 square-feet of clinical space—in 2009. In 2010, the center saw a 20 percent increase in new patient visits and a 13 percent increase in overall patient volume. More than 33,000 clinic visits were made last year, and 125 new patients started clinical trials.
Gregg says the efforts of the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center are far-reaching, as she often hears stories of people whose lives were saved thanks to the center. Gregg is chair of the Rosenbaum Family House, a home away from home for adults who live at least 50 miles from the cancer center and who need a place to stay when traveling for surgeries or treatments. “We get letters all of the time,” she says. “They are from all over the state and all over the United States. The impact of this cancer center and what they do here—it’s strong.”
When Gregg and her husband first moved to Morgantown in 2003, they knew they wanted to get more involved with the MBRCC. Her father-in-law, Ernie Gregg, is a colon cancer survivor who defeated the disease with help from the cancer center. “They have saved so many people I love. It’s tremendous,” Gregg says. Two of her husband’s aunts are also breast cancer survivors, and Gregg’s former colleague at The Greenbrier, 2010 gala chair Sharon Rowe, survived breast cancer, too. Gregg says the gala recognizes a different cancer survivor each year, and to the credit of the planners, the tone is upbeat. “Everything about it is very positive. We will eradicate cancer,” she says.