CARY, N.C. — Jill Wolford considers herself fortunate.
Not because of the diagnosis of advanced breast cancer she received at age 35, and not because of the slim chances she was given for survival.
She feels lucky because of the outpouring of support she, her husband, Eric, and two young children received from a vast network of family and friends.
That support, coupled with a good job and good insurance, helped her through an intensive course of chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant.
“It felt like the whole world stepped up to help us,” says Wolford, who has been cancer-free since 1999.
That experienced made Wolford want to pass along at least a portion of the help she received to another woman in need.
So in 2000, after finishing the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Raleigh, she held a cookout for friends and asked them to donate to help another woman with breast cancer.
That night she collected $724, which she gave to her oncologist. She passed it along to a single mother with terminal breast cancer.
The thank-you note she received from that woman, and the enclosed poem from her eight year-old son, sparked a greater and lasting passion in Wolford.
“Even though she was terminally ill and leaving a son, she felt that the world and her child would be okay because there are people in the world who care,” Wolford says.
Every year since then, Wolford and her husband have held a fundraiser to raise money to help cancer patients pay for day-to-day expenses like food, clothing, rent and child care.
To be able to do even more, she and her husband started the nonprofit Caring Community Foundation in 2003. The Cary-based all-volunteer organization holds an annual fundraiser every year, awarding 100 percent of the proceeds to cancer patients in the Triangle area through a network that includes almost all local cancer clinics and hospitals.
Patients apply for funds through their health-care providers, who have been trained by the foundation on the funding procedures.
Since that first cookout in 2000, Wolford and the foundation have raised, and awarded, a total of $675,000 to 625 patients. Most awards are $700 to $800, she says, but even $100 can make a big difference.
“It’s shocking how little some patients will need just to get them by,” says Wolford.
The 2008 fundraiser, held Sept. 6 in Raleigh, drew about 500 people who donated a combined $115,000.
Some 15 to 20 core volunteers keep the foundation running, while another 75 people pitch in to pull together the annual fundraiser.
While Wolford served as the foundation’s board chair until 2007, and used to put “every waking moment” into the effort, she now devotes about 10 to 15 hours a week to Caring Community. That’s in addition to her full-time job working in clinical research for a drug company.
In the past few years, other people have stepped up to the plate, which Wolford says has been good for the foundation.
“I see how many people have bought into the concept,” she says. “They are so much better at their area of expertise. They’ve taken it way beyond what I could have done.”
In 2008, the now 16 year-old son of the very first grant recipient, who has since died, came to the annual fundraiser to read aloud the poem he wrote for his mother when he was eight.
Prior to agreeing to attend, he hadn’t known about the Caring Community Foundation, or that his mother’s thank-you note had led to its creation.
Not only was it a moving experience for all the attendees, says Wolford, it gave the young poet a sense of his mother’s legacy.
“His mother will always be remembered,” says Wolford. “And because of her, more than 600 other patients have been helped.”