Thursday, June 22, 2017 This Week's Paper

Breast Cancer Resource Center Battles to Reopen

It breaks Janie Cunningham’s heart to hear car doors open and close outside the Breast Cancer Resource Center. That is because next she hears those same car doors open and close again and a motor fade in the distance moments later. It happens all the time after women read a sign on the center’s door stating that the center is closed.

“I am still answering phones and doing work in the office as a volunteer,” Cunningham, the nonprofit’s executive director, said. “We have just enough money to close our doors, so we are trying to raise money so that doesn’t happen. These women need help and support in their fight.”

The ailing breast cancer referral and support organization has been on an extended emergency furlough since April 11. All classes, services and support group efforts for the women under the age of 35 facing cancer were stopped for what was first hoped would be just a two-week closure as the agency scurried for donations and grants. May 1 came and went. The doors stayed closed. BCRC hopes to now recover from the cash-flow troubles and reopen in early June. That might be the center’s last gasp because the nonprofit’s board could decide at its meeting later that month to halt operations entirely if money to cover rent, payroll and supplies does not arrive.

The center needs $20,000 a month to cover expenses and has a host of grants in the works for the fall. But fundraising efforts between now and then are big unknowns. Even with the efforts afoot, the center has a lot to overcome. 

“What we need now is instant dollars,” Cunningham said, noting that that infusion of donations will buy the center time to build a support base of small donors giving regularly rather than continuing the operation on the larger, and less predictable, foundation grants BCRC had been using.

The financial slide started four years ago, as the economic downturn cut into the funds foundations flowed into the center’s operations. A big hit came in 2009 when the Susan G. Komen Foundation ended its support as it cut back all donations to services for younger cancer patients to focus on programs for higher-risk, older women. That meant a loss of $110,000 to the center. Other foundations cut back as well as they too shifted their own pool of shrinking donation dollars to funding core service providers at the cost of donations to referral and support centers like BCRC.

Charging for the service BCRC provides – from diagnostic mammogram vouchers, wigs and prosthesis, to support groups, clothing and education – is not really an option either because the center strives to be accessible to everyone.

“Everything is free, and everything has to be free,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham said several women have already called the center with concerns that they have breast cancer but are holding off going to a doctor for an examination because they do not have insurance. These women have expressed hope that the center will re-open in time to provide them with vouchers because they cannot afford the medical bills associated with the screening, let alone any treatments that would be needed. They are gambling with their lives.

“They cannot wait for us because we just don’t know if we are going to re-open,” Cunningham said. 

The center fills a gap because older women on limited incomes facing cancer can use programs offered by other agencies that target their specific age groups.

So there is the rub. The clients need the services and they need them to be free, but the center still has costs for those services and bills to pay. Most of the center’s funding had traditionally come from foundations and grants, which have dried up. But the costs for those services have remained.

“We had a pretty routine set of grants that had been coming in and then they all went away,” Cunningham said.

A traditionally large fundraiser, the Old Town Blues Festival, is still set for later this summer. But an unresolved tiff with Metro Parks concerning fees associated with operating a beer garden has forced a shift to ticket-sale only activities instead of free concerts and proceeds from beer sales. The center’s “One Million $1” campaign brought in some funding, but fell well short of hopes. But it has now gotten some new traction thanks to social media, and one die-hard supporter.

Tacoma henna artist Dagmar Peterson is putting her ink to work by gathering donations for an auction and organizing a musical benefit. She is also offering “henna crowns” to any cancer patient she meets at the local farmers markets as a way to raise awareness. People will also be able to make donations to the center at her wedding in August.

“I just woke up one day and said, ‘this is not going down.’ The center just can’t close,” Peterson said. “It just can’t. Too many people rely on it. I feel bad that I haven’t done something until now, but I’m going to do what I can. It is just too important.”

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