An event intended to bring hope to breast cancer sufferers and their families also brought out a record number of participants this year.
Despite damp conditions, the 10th annual Rays of Hope: A Walk Toward the Cure of Breast Cancer drew 7,000 walkers to the streets in and around Forest Park in Springfield and Longmeadow on Oct. 26.
Those participants, who collected pledges in the weeks before setting out on the five-mile trek, wound up submitting a record $550,000 by walk day in support of programs at Baystate Medical Center’s Comprehensive Breast Center and other local breast cancer research.
“We expect to raise close to $600,000 as pledge money continues to come into the office,” said Hugh Barrett, fundraising manager for Baystate Health Foundation, the fundraising arm of Baystate Health System, the walk’s main sponsor.
The numbers beat the records set in 2002, when walk-day collections totaled $508,000 and the final count was $552,000. The money, as always, will be used to fund local breast cancer treatment and education programs.
“Our sense is that, over the past four years, the level of awareness has really increased — for the event, and also for breast cancer in general and the need for women to get screened,” Barrett said. “We feel part of a fairly strong national movement to raise awareness. We just happen to be the local walk, and we hope we make a difference here in Western Mass.”
If the numbers are to be believed, Rays of Hope is doing just that.
Rays of Hope was launched in 1994 by Springfield native Lucy Giuggio, a registered nurse who was diagnosed with breast cancer while working at Baystate Medical Center. With a group of mainly breast cancer survivors, friends, families, and other community volunteers, the first walk boasted 500 participants.
Now a 10-year breast cancer survivor who serves as director of case management for Jewish Geriatric Services in Longmeadow, Giuggio is thrilled with the steady growth of the event.
“The community has truly embraced the Rays of Hope and made it the success it is today,” she said. “Each year is like a new miracle as the walk touches so many lives and provides needed support for breast cancer programs and research in our area.”
And all of the money raised stays local, Barrett said, with decisions made by a committee of volunteers and Baystate staff.
“After the walk, they allocate the funds into four areas: local research; community education and outreach; coordinated, accessible, medically advanced care; and patient support,” he explained.
“Some money stays internally at Baystate where we do some of those things, but we also work with a lot of different community organizations, such as the Center of Hope, Cancer Connection, American Cancer Society, Holyoke Health Center, and the Women’s Health Network. So it does stay here in Western Mass. and Northern Conn.”
Barrett said he’s not surprised by the overwhelming success of Rays of Hope because he sees the work and planning that goes into it throughout the year. Teams of walkers are organized in the months before the event, with each team member required to meet a pledge goal. The names of many teams each year honor loved ones struggling with breast cancer — as well as those who have succumbed to a disease that claims the lives of 40,000 American women every year.
“I think we focused on the recruitment of team captains, and there were more teams this year,” Barrett said. “We also tried to provide the captains and walkers with tools and information to help them raise more money. It was just a lot of hard work by a lot of volunteers.”
That work is largely performed by a core of 40 to 50 volunteers who work year-round on Rays of Hope planning, Barrett said. It includes bringing co-sponsors on board — including Health New England, Chicopee Savings Bank, and Baystate Reference Labs this year — and planning musical entertainment both along the walk route and at Temple Beth El, the starting and finish line.
“Operationally, everything went well,” Barrett said. “It was a good day, and the entertainment and hoopla aspects of it went well, too. We don’t want people to just show up for a walk. It’s more of an event than a walk.”
Next year’s walk is slated for Oct. 24, and the committee has already started planning for that, in an effort to again break participation and fundraising records.
“It has been extremely successful,” Barrett said. “A lot of events have life cycles and tend to trail off after about year seven. We’re still going up, so we’re very excited about that.”