October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, a time for celebrating, protecting and informing about those beloved bosoms. So we caught up with Tina Gray, a resident already well-known for organizing the Brooklyn/Bedford Park 9/11 Memorial (and video here), and an ardent fundraiser in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.
The Making Strides walk will be on October 17 at Prospect Park. Click here for event details.
Gray has raised thousands for the cause over the past six years, and is known for her iconic hat adorned with pink ribbons and pins representing friends and family who’ve battled breast cancer. Gray took time to answer some questions via e-mail about why she cares so deeply for this cause, and about the challenges of fundraising in hard economic times.
The Q&A is followed by a list of names of people – many from the neighborhood – represented by the pins and ribbons on her hat.
We hope after reading the interview, you’ll consider helping Gray meet her fundraising goals this year. Click here to donate.
How long have you been fundraising with Making Strides?
I started as a team leader with the Coney Island Striders – a former team from Coney Island Hospital. I believe that was in 2004. The team has since been disbanded and I’ve decided to continue the fight on my own with a few friends – former Coney Island Striders – under the name Breast of Friends.
What got you started?
I actually didn’t even know about the Making Strides campaign until 2003 when my friend Camille asked me if I was doing the walk. I asked her, “What walk?” When she told me about it, I said that I wasn’t doing it and she was very surprised because this was something that is – as she put it – right up my alley. The next year, I joined the Coney Island Striders and the rest is history.
What’s with the hat?
I believe the best way to send a message and reach people is with something tangible. Inside the hat is a list of names of people who have fought – and sometimes lost – the fight against breast cancer. When people see my hat, they’re intrigued. When they ask about the pins and ribbons, and I explain that the ribbons are for people who have been diagnosed and the pins are for those who lost the fight, they’re taken aback by the amount that they see and realize that each one represents a real person. I guess it’s my way of acknowledging and remembering – as well as spreading the word.
How many ribbons/pins are on the hat? You knew every single person for which you’ve placed them?
I’ve lost count, actually. It’s unnerving to know how many ribbons and pins are on the hat. When I learn of someone who’s been diagnosed, I add a ribbon. Usually it’s someone I know or it’s the friend or family member of someone I know. But sometimes it’s someone who has just seen the hat, asked about it and requested a ribbon or a pin. I’m happy to do it for them.
What have been some of the challenges in fundraising this year?
It has been incredibly difficult. Obviously, with the economy the way it is, people don’t really have extra money. I’m having a rough time.
Why is it important that the community come out to support this cause, even if times are tough economically?
Cancer doesn’t care if these are tough economic times. It will strike whenever it chooses. And it doesn’t discriminate. I love it when ignorant men snicker and say that they don’t have to worry about this kind of cancer because they don’t have breasts. I point out that there are two pins on my hat that represent two different men. I don’t mean to say that if you don’t support the cause it’ll happen to you, but the odds are that you’ll know someone who’ll be diagnosed. Why not make a preemptive strike and do what you can to join the fight?
Will you ever stop?
In 1991, I was called to NYU by my cousin because she said my aunt wasn’t doing too well and she thought that I would want to see her. I had never seen a victim of cancer. When I got there, my beautiful Aunt Shirley was in fetal position, bald. When I tried to speak to her, all she said was, “mamamamama.” I’d like to think she was seeing my grandmother.
When I got back to work, I received another phone call from my cousin. Aunt Shirley was gone. Several years ago, my friend Nina was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was all positive – taking charge, telling her not to worry, that I was a Coney Island Strider and she was going to be fine. It didn’t matter what resources I had through the American Cancer Society – for whom I do fundraising. Nina still lost her fight. About a month before she died, she said to me, “I guess you were wrong, Tina. I’m not gonna be all right.”
And then there was Debbie. For more than eight years, she fought. And, I believe it was two days after her son’s eighteenth birthday, she died. I stood at her casket and promised her that I would continue the fight for her. I know they say, “Never say never.” But I made a promise to Debbie, and, in memory of Aunt Shirley and Nina and Mary - and for Mimi and Ev and Annie and Gail and Sonia and so many more who are okay now – I have to continue to do what I do – on whatever level I am capable as time goes on.
BREAST CANCER HAT LIST
Bonnie Diaz (Cyclones walk)
Diane Leo (Camille’s cousin)
Dinetta (from Key Food)
Elaine Fulcher (Survivor from Keyspan)
Ellen Borakove (works with Abby)
Jen Gold (from Cyclone Fan Marissa Greenspan)
Joanne Barbara (Linda Errante’s friend)
Joanne Walton (sister of Olivia Laidlow – Grants in CO)
Joy Silver (friend of Naomi Godfrey)
Judy Casey (Mom of Tim Wallace from Keyspan)
Kristin Denaver (Fran McLaughlin’s Niece)
Meredith Greaves (Meredith Keough’s Mom)
Patricia Roman Sr,
Randi Silver (daughter of Naomi’s friend)
Robin Goldberg (Steve Goldberg’s sister)
Veronica Baker (Visiting Nurse Service/Nina)
Claire Lembo (From Richard Halloran from Keyspan Leukemia Survivor)
Etta Karasik (from Cyclone Fan Marissa Greenspan)
Mary Halloran (From Richard Halloran from Keyspan Leukemia Survivor)
Mary Ann Fernandez
Matthew Sullivan (Donnie’s uncle)
Mildred Faber (Mel Marmer’s mom)
Patricia Halloran (From Richard Halloran from Keyspan Leukemia Survivor) Shirley Winters
Theresa Matthews (Albert Van Lare)