By Richard L. Gaw
West Chester resident Sue Weldon was a gymnastics coach for several years at a local school. On May 4, 2004, at the age of 39, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began chemotherapy on May 22 and had her last session on October 22nd of that year.
Weldon was, in her words, broken. Sure, she got to ring a bell after her last treatment, but she was not done yet – everything was not pieced back together yet – and the chemo had transformed her body from that of a grown woman to that of a 12-year-old girl. She didn't want to just throw medication at the problem, so she tried alternative approaches to help restore her health. Weldon did 36 sessions of acupuncture, as well as had massage therapy. She took meditation classes, yoga classes, and learned about proper nutrition. In her year of healing, she dove head first into complimentary therapy.
Eventually, Weldon recovered from breast cancer and slowly, the life she'd known with her three children and husband came back, as did her body. She eventually returned to coaching, and began connecting with her young players. None of them could believe their coach was diagnosed with breast cancer at such a young age. They wanted to do everything they could to learn, to help, and one day, Weldon and a few of her players participated in a wellness event in Washington, D.C.
“I met a woman who was bald from chemotherapy, and she asked me how I got well,” Weldon said. “I mentioned all of the things that were restoring me. She began to break down. She told me that she could never afford all of that.”
Weldon then went home, spoke with her husband about the woman she had met in Washington, D.C., and over the next few years, the Unite for HER organization was born.
Working hand-in-hand with one dozen area hospitals from Philadelphia to Chester County, Unite for HER, incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2009, annually helps over one thousand women living with breast cancer in the Delaware Valley. At Wellness Days held throughout the year, Unite for Her creates a personal plan for each woman that forms the toolbox they need to help them in their recovery – seen most prominently in the form of a voucher program that entitles them to complimentary sessions and classes in the areas of acupuncture, massage, yoga, Reiki, beauty consultation, counseling and nutrition. Each woman is assigned to a Unite for HER Ambassador – a woman who has already been through the program.
All sessions are paid in full directly to the provider by Unite For HER, alleviating patients from having to pay out-of-pocket expenses. And it's not just a case of dropping off vouchers and leaving; Unite for HER volunteers work with patients for a full year.
“We give them a personal plan for their healing,” Weldon said. “We're a hands-on, high touch organization, and we follow them through e-mail, through our ambassadors who have already gone through the program. They usually end up sending us testimonials on how the program changed their life, and that they are able to do things with out prescription drugs and find control in a disease they had no control over, and eventually, they are allowed to get back to a new normal.”
The tendrils of the organization are not just felt in yoga rooms and acupuncture sessions, but in school hallways. Unite for HER is currently associated with 18 schools, including Avon Grove, Kennett and Unionville high schools, many of whom have formed their own Unite for HER clubs and sponsor awareness events during the school year.
Throughout the year, Unite for HER sponsors several fund-raising events, which annually raise close to a half million dollars in total revenue – money that is funneled directly into the voucher program. Unite for HER's largest fund-raiser is the Pink Invitational, a three-day gymnastics competition held annually at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. The most recent invitational, held this past February, drew 1,000 gymnasts and more than 10,000 in attendance, and raised $350,000 for the organization. Sponsorships, grants and donations also account for a portion of Unite for HER's revenues.
On May 4, Unite for HER will be sponsoring its annual fashion show and luncheon at the Radnor Hunt in Malvern. Now in its second year after a successful event last year in Unionville, the fashion show will showcase top styles from Frey Boutique, which will be modeled by some of the women who are currently in the Unite for HER program. In addition, the event will include tastings from the Terrain Garden Cafe in Glen Mills, as well as raffles and a cash bar.
“It's a fund-raising event, but also an opportunity for us to bring patients together from various hospitals and allow them to enjoy the fellowship of sharing their stories, re-connecting and reuniting,” said Julie Hillhouse, Unite for HER communications director. “We invite everyone to come out and support our models. Whether they have a full head of hair or whether they're dressed in a scarf, it's an opportunity for them to feel beautiful.”
The best moments of Unite for HER, Weldon said, are seen during the many Wellness Days the organization sponsors throughout the year.
“We see women arrive feeling blind-sided and out of control, and two hours into the day, we begin to see them rejuvenated and feel like they have the control, power, and the tools to beat cancer,” she said. “We see their faces change, and we see them walk away with $2,000 worth of vouchers. We see one woman at a time, changing her life.
Perhaps the greatest irony Weldon feels is one that circles back to her own journey of recovery. “If I hadn't have started chemotherapy I wouldn't have started Unite for HER,” she said. “I was really broken. That's when I had to find out how to thrive and survive. I didn't want just five years. I wanted to see my children get married and become a grandmother. Without chemotherapy, I wouldn't have been able to work with such a great group of people. We wouldn't have been able to help so many others.”
Unite for HER Fashion Show and Luncheon
May 4, 2014
1 p.m. - 4 p.m.
826 Providence Road
Malvern, Pa. 19355