In a little over a week, the lakefront will be splashed with pink, as around 15,000 people will be first meeting at the north gate of the Summerfest grounds before starting the 16th Susan G. Komen Southeast Wisconsin Race for the Cure on the campuses of Discovery World and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
The race is a highly visible and communal show of support by those affected by breast cancer, and is a major fundraising event for the foundation’s local affiliate, Komen Southeast Wisconsin.
Founded in 1982, Susan G. Komen for the Cure has become synonymous with the color pink, and large national awareness campaigns. It’s a brand.
But with that, especially over the last few years, comes questions. Where does my money go? Who really sees it? If I run along the Lake Park Lagoon in Milwaukee, does my money stay in my community?
"People are like where specifically does this go, how is this affecting change, what is it doing?" said Komen Southeast Wisconsin executive director Nikki Panico, who is also a breast cancer survivor. "Here locally we’re our own private 501(c)3. We have our own board.
"The operations of it is really local."
For those who support the affiliate through events like the race on Sept. 21, 75 percent of the net funds raised remain in the area, while 25 percent is directed to the larger foundation for research.
This year alone, Komen Southeast Wisconsin has given $780,000 in grants to eight local organizations, and over the last 15 years it has granted out $8.3 million to 42 organizations.
"A lot of people don’t know that," Panico said. "We’ve been trying really hard the last two years to let that message be known, because when our race numbers go down – right now we’re trying to recruit for our race and we say we need you to register because this is paying for mammograms and diagnostic services right here at home."
So, how effective, or how real, are these grants? Do they make a difference? Do they save lives?
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Dr. Sandra Millon Underwood helps run a program called Partners in Pursuit of the Promise, which helps bring awareness to an underserved segment of the greater Milwaukee population – minority women.
"It’s not uncommon that we get calls every other day from agencies or institutions for us to come and work with their women," said Dr. Millon Underwood of the UWM School of Nursing. "What we receive from Komen is invaluable. It really, really is. It makes a difference."
While the organization receives aid from other organizations, the Komen affiliate’s support has been important. It helps allow Millon Underwood and her staff get into the community, the churches (large and small), the community centers, the beauty salons, schools – anywhere women are – to educate and to facilitate screenings and follow ups.
"We are reaching real women, women who may have been missed, may have been overlooked for various reasons," Millon Underwood said. "We go to places, in reality, other institutions don’t go. They don’t go because they don’t see the need. These are nurses who have been involved and who are committed to the work and committed to the community.
And, if a woman needs to see a doctor, or needs follow up care, the money from the local Komen affiliate helps.
"We can provide the resources, or payment, for these services," said Millon Underwood.
Her group works alongside the Wisconsin Well Women program, the Wisconsin Women’s Foundation and Columbia St. Mary’s to help "uninsured and under insured women based on their income and also based on their need."
"These are also agencies that will make sure women who end up with an abnormality and are in need of diagnostics or treatment can indeed receive that through their systems as well," Millon Underwood added. "It’s not just a program that provides information, screening and referral. We also work very closely with our women that are in need and uninsured can get connected with the services they need."
For the Komen affiliate and the programs it helps fund, awareness is still a vital component to what they do.
Yes, people can make the direct correlation with pink and breast cancer, people can be "aware" of the disease, but there is still a surprising amount of women who don’t make that awareness personal.
"Yes, the pink is a symbol, people know about breast cancer and they love to honor their loved ones who are survivors or remember those they have lost because of this disease, but what he hope this does is hey, go to our website and let us come to your book club, wine tasting, business, for 10 minutes, and we will share what you need to look for," Panico said.
"The truth of the matter is one in eight women are still getting breast cancer. People are still dying at a high rate because they’re catching it too late. So, we’re still about pink because it does make people think, but we want them to learn and know what to do."
Added Millon Underwood: "We go where women are in an effort to reach those who have not been reached. For us, this is not just an academic exercises, a media program, just a nice campaign and we’re done with it. We really want to serve those women so they can truly understand the needs and they realize we’re here to support them through the entire spectrum of care. Because all too often women have heard the words, but they don’t understand how it impacts them."
It’s an interesting time for fundraising, and event coordinators. People are willing to give, and want to be involved, but that requires more information, and brings more questions.
It is change Panico and Millon Underwood appreciate, and welcome with open arms and hearts.
"Often I don’t think people know how much the organization does do in order to reach women who are the greatest risk for being under served," Millon Underwood said. "That is the primary mission – to reach women who are at risk and who are being underserved. We don’t tell that story enough."
Their hope is it helps bring more people, more donors, to events like the Race for the Cure, which in turn will help local programs like Partners in Pursuit of the Promise help more women from the community.
"I love when people ask (about money raised)," Panico said. "I love when I can tell a story and know that yes, we’re helping your neighbor."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.