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Members of the Wethersfield-based Team Towanda Foundation Debbie Garten, left, Judith Melchreit and Alison Caxide are chatting via Skype with Monica Smith in Maryland about their ongoing efforts to raise funds and awareness to fight breast cancer. With the help of other members of the group, the foundation has created two cookbooks and raised more than $250,000 for breast cancer prevention and treatment. (John Woike, email@example.com / October 3, 2012)
October 3, 2012
By LINDA GIUCA, Special To The Courant
"'Cancer' and 'celebration' do not belong in the same sentence. That's just weird," begins the introduction to the pink, spiral-bound cookbook, "Towanda Celebrates with her Bosom Buddies."
Yet, for the past 10 years, a group of women, some breast cancer survivors and others the friends who support them, have shown that the two words are compatible. They have approached the serious business of raising money for breast cancer prevention with drive, spirit and a contagious sense of humor.
Two cookbooks have helped to raise some of the $250,000 that the Wethersfield-based Team Towanda Foundation has donated to area health care facilities since 2002. The group's first book, "The Charge of the Casserole Cavalry: The Official Towanda Cookbook," refers to the covered dishes that friends brought to feed Judith Melchreit's family while she underwent treatment after her December 2000 diagnosis. The book also documents the supportive ways that friends helped Melchreit as well as her own reflections on managing her illness.
The new book, "Towanda Celebrates with her Bosom Buddies," was published this year to mark the non-profit organization's 10th anniversary. The 200-plus page cookbook contains dozens of recipes and personal tips, advice and guidance for party-planning and, more importantly, support for women fighting breast cancer and for their friends and families.
"The book isn't about cancer; it's about women helping women," says Melchreit, a breast cancer survivor and a founding member of the Towanda board. "You celebrate everything because you never know what will happen. All those little stepping stones that's what life is about. That was our theme" for the book.
The name "Towanda'' was a gift from an artist friend who created ``Towanda,'' the sword-wielding warrior modeled after Wonder Woman, wearing a headdress and wearing a pink ribbon, the symbol of breast-cancer patients. Towanda appears on the cover of the new cookbook and on brochures explaining the Foundation.
The five board members, who are close friends, practice what they suggest in the books. When Alison Caxide she and Melchreit have been friends since the seventh grade was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Melchreit and fellow board member Debbie Garten hopped in the car and drove to Ohio, where Caxide lived at the time, to plan a Power Surge party, a pre-treatment, women-only bash. "A road trip is always fun," Melchreit says.
Emulating their no-nonsense icon, a Nordic/Amazon warrier who waves a sword and wears a pink ribbon on her suit of armor, the Towanda women are single-mindedly serious about raising money but know how to have a good time. These are women who call a pre-treatment, women-only bash a Power Surge, who chose a phone number that spells "tatas" for their foundation, who dubbed their husbands "Underwire Guys" for their support and who sponsor a bra-decorating contest at their now biennial fundraiser. (Guests wear these often wildly decorated bras over their shirts.)
While they've kept their sense of humor intact, Melchreit admits that the diagnosis, treatment and aftermath "is tough stuff." Caxide, whose treatment ended 3-1/2 years ago, agrees. "You never wake up with just a headache or just a cold. You start thinking about what else could be going on. I try to have a different perspective on what are the important things to worry about.
"Being a member of the foundation is important to me," Caxide says. "Paying it forward is so important. I'm the one with this experience. It helps me to help [others]."
The next FUNdraiser, a party and health fair, will take place in April, 2014. "It's like having a wedding for 500 people that you don't know," Garten says. "
but the guests go home with presents," Melchreit adds.
When planning the first FUNdraiser, the women hoped to raise $1,000. "We made $7,000 that night, and [more] money kept coming in," the impetus for founding the Foundation in 2002, Melchreit says.
Over the years,Towanda has donated money toward the purchase of an ultrasound machine for uninsured patients and a mobile mammography unit for Hartford Hospital. Nearly $250,000 has been given to the Partnership for Breast Care at Hartford Hospital and to the Women's Wellness Center at Eastern Connecticut Health Network to provide breast care to underinsured women.
The Foundation also provides Towanda Totes stuffed with post-surgery, self-care products for uninsured lumpectomy patients at Hartford, Rockville and Manchester Memorial hospitals. All mastectomy patients at Hartford Hospital receive a copy of the first cookbook, while brochures explaining the work of the Foundation are available in English and Spanish.
"Our focus as a foundation is about breast cancer, but everything we say can be applied to anyone in trouble," Melchreit says. "If someone is in trouble, there's always something you can do. Sometimes, the little things are the best."
For more information about Team Towanda Foundation, visit http://www.teamtowanda.org, facebook.com/teamtowandafoundation or twitter.com/teamtowanda or call 860-578-2827. There is a second Towanda telephone number for Spanish-speaking women: 860-479-2345. Cookbooks are $20 each or $35 for a set of "The Charge of the Casserole Cavalry: The Official Towanda Cookbook" and "Towanda Celebrates with her Bosom Buddies."