As cancers go, very few share the high-profile spotlight of breast cancer. Yet, while Americans have gotten used to the idea of thinking pink each October, there has remained a gap in services, says Ellen Friebert Schupper, the executive director of ABCD – After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.
For 19 years, the international organization has set out to change that, founded and grounded right here in Milwaukee.
"We provide non-clinical, one-to-one support for anyone affected by breast cancer," says Schupper, who’s been in this role for a year. "We are the place to reach out to when you've been diagnosed with breast cancer, or someone you love's been diagnosed with breast cancer."
What that means in practice is that ABCD has trained a network of more than 600 mentors and volunteers– more than 300 are active in the organization – who can talk to a patient or their families about anything, not just the medical side of breast cancer. In fact, ABCD doesn’t doesn’t give out medical advice at all.
With its small staff of six, including three match specialists in Glendale, ABCD is all about making connections.
Says Schupper, "We connect people with mentors who can share their experience going through chemo, or offer tips and tricks that they had to survive the holidays while feeling ill, or share how she navigated a sticky situation when talking to their child about why mommy has no hair."
Some of the connections ABCD makes turn into life-long friendships. Others are only during the duration of the illness.
"Our mentors are trained to be able to stay connected, reach out and meet the participant where they are and give them what they need."
The service is completely free. Says Schupper, "We exist on donations and grants and corporate relationships and events, and we have always been and we'll always be a free service that is not underwritten or supported by any one hospital. We're available to anyone who needs us."
ABCD began almost 20 years ago, with its founder Melodie Wilson Oldenburg, the former journalist and breast cancer patient, discovering that the most valuable support came from her own peers. When she died from the disease in 2009, her family continued the mission. In fact, ABCD’s offices are inside Visa Lighting, the company run by Melodie’s husband, Wayne Oldenburg.
"Melodie became aware of the need for mentoring by women who had already dealt with the journey through diagnosis and treatment, when many women started calling her with questions after her diagnosis was announced," says Wayne. "The number of donors, mentors and participants are testimony to her recognition of the importance and necessity of ABCD’s mission to serve one-to-one."
Wayne is now board president of the organization, and says he sees it positioned to grow. He points to the increase of 23 mentors at the start to 266, who speak multiple languages and service 49 states. "ABCD’s growth over the years has been limited only by its funding. There’s no shortage of people wanting its services."
To that end, 2017, Keith Mardak, CEO of the Hal Leonard Corporation, offered ABCD a four-year, $2 million challenge grant to elevate awareness about their services.
"When Melodie was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my wife Mary Vandenberg and I, although shocked at first, watched her handle her medical treatments along with family and professional obligations with her usual competence," says Mardak.
"Then Melodie began the organization that came to mean so much to her, ABCD, as a way to help others who were experiencing what she had gone through. It was invaluable for her to be the public face and guiding force of ABCD in getting the organization established and known in the community. Mary and I became strong financial supporters of ABCD."
From there, Mardak and Wayne strategized on how to expand ABCD to reach more women in more cities – and thus the new grant.
Says Mardak, "On behalf of ABCD, Wayne accepted the challenge. He is determined to accomplish the fund raising so that ABCD can become an even more effective aid to cancer patients, as was Melodie’s dream. That is why Mary and I are pleased to commit to ABCD’s long-term growth and sustainability."
Says Wayne, "With Keith’s help, we foresee doubling the number of people we serve each year by deepening and expanding relationships with healthcare facilities, making a significant investment in marketing and outreach initiatives, deepening our use of technology and expanding services to underserved populations. Our goal is that every woman or man who is diagnosed or living with breast cancer knows about ABCD and has access to our critical services, starting right here in Southeastern Wisconsin."
And that’s starting to happen. ABCD’s major annual event, Date With A Plate, on May 30, is already sold out. For Schupper, who has worked in the world of non-profit and agencies in both Washington, D.C., and now back home in Milwaukee, she says she’s proud of the direction the organization is heading.
"I lost my dad to lung cancer, and the family and friends element of ABCD really speaks to me because I feel like I really could've benefited from sharing an experience with someone there."
Now, her goal is to raise awareness of this powerful international charity located right here in her backyard. OnMilwaukee is a media sponsor of Date With A Plate.
"We do not have a national umbrella organization," says Schupper. "Instead, we are an independent organization that’s part of the fabric of Milwaukee. We have this national footprint, and the way that we're set up, you just need a phone. We are working to be a nonprofit that Milwaukee celebrates."
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.