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It had been around a year since her diagnosis when Sue Weldon in 2005 attended an event called Yoga Unites for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. After a relaxing, restorative stretch, Sue and the other participants wandered the venue, checking out displays for fitness classes, organic foods and 100% natural cosmetics.
As someone who describes herself as the type of person who'd much rather pull weeds than use pesticides, Sue felt right at home. Her treatment regimen, besides a bilateral mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, had included numerous complementary remedies. When she saw a young woman whose bald head clearly signaled that she was undergoing chemo, Sue reached out in sympathy. "I said, 'Don't worry, you're going to get through this,' and told her how much acupuncture and yoga helped with healing. And the woman said sadly, 'I could never afford that.'" Sue realized how lucky she had been, and began thinking about ways she could help other women with breast cancer get the same kinds of "extras" that helped her feel better not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
Two weeks later Sue returned to work (after a yearlong medical leave to focus on getting well) as a gymnastics coach at the AJS Pancott Gymnastics National Training Center near her home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Her students—girls ages 11 to 18—were full of questions about her illness. Two of them, sisters Missy and Macalla Curtis, then in their early teens, were particularly concerned because they had a grandmother and an aunt with the disease. Shortly after Sue returned, a second aunt was diagnosed. "They were anxious. I could see that they were starting to worry about their own odds too," says Sue. As she reassured the girls and encouraged them to eat healthy foods and to stay active, the idea of doing something more was on her mind.
"My wheels were definitely turning," says Sue. She eventually decided to create a nonprofit organization and put together a special gymnastics competition with a twofold purpose: to educate girls about breast cancer and to raise money to provide alternative therapies for women fighting the disease.
When she mentioned the idea to coaches and judges, they loved it. Sue asked training center owners Steve and Louise Pancott for their help. They quickly said they were in. "Are you in big?" Sue asked. "Because I'm thinking big!" Their answer: "We're in big!"
Sue started recruiting the parents of the girls she coached to form committees, including hospitality and publicity. One father, Doug Smith, applied to Verizon, his employer, for an education grant. The company ended up becoming the event's lead sponsor. Ultimately, more than 200 moms and dads pitched in. Within just two months, 37 gyms in five states had committed to sending 1,200 girls to the competition, dubbed the Pink Invitational—Gymnasts Unite. "When the tickets sold out, it was a huge moment," says Sue.
The weeks leading up to the meet were busy for the Weldons. Sue's husband, Chip, created the initial website (since redesigned by a local firm). Her daughter, Corrine, then 12, prepped to compete. Sons Taylor and Evan recruited their hockey and lacrosse teams to assemble the multiple sets of equipment—including uneven parallel bars, balance beams and vaults—that such a big meet required. "They were so excited to be a part of it," says Sue.
Taking place over three days in February 2009, the first Pink meet was everything Sue had envisioned. "All the girls marching in carrying banners printed with words like 'courage,' 'strength,' 'hope'—it was beautiful," she says. In addition to the competition, there were guest speakers on healthy lifestyles, yoga classes for the girls and an expo area with tables featuring organic food, makeup and cleaning solutions. Sue's daughter, Corrine, walked away with the Spirit of Character award honoring her positivity despite a disappointing performance on the balance beam. But Corrine, who had been in first grade when Sue was diagnosed, felt her mom was the real winner that day.
"When the announcer introduced my mom to give the opening remarks," she says, "I was so proud of her."
A backdrop to the event was a quilt hanging in the gym with a square for each of the competing teams, made by the Curtis sisters and their grandmother, who had passed away the previous month. The first Pink Invitational raised $65,000. The event had been a huge success, but it was barely over when Sue began dreaming up ways to make the next one even more spectacular.
Remaining true to her vow to the Pancotts that she would "think big," Sue started an umbrella organization called Unite for HER ("Helping to Empower and Restore"). The idea was that the Pink Invitational would be an outreach and fundraising event of Unite for HER, which would also provide other services, such as wellness days for breast cancer patients at local hospitals, grants for gymnasts who have a parent struggling with breast cancer, and support for other nonprofits with a shared mission. When the ink was dry on the paperwork, she and her newly recruited board members went to work on the 2010 Invitational. This time around, 55 gyms and 1,500 girls participated, and they raised over $125,000 to implement programming in accordance with the organization's mission.
Since then, Unite for HER has experienced phenomenal growth, holding three Wellness Days at Pennsylvania's Paoli Hospital, where Sue was treated. In all, 75 women, recommended by their doctors, have been educated about the benefits of complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage and yoga. Each received vouchers to cover the cost of two therapies of her choosing. "The year after my diagnosis, I spent about $6,000 out of pocket," says Sue. "I wanted others to have the same opportunities to heal, without the financial burden."
But those Wellness Days never would have happened if not for the Pink Invitational. The 2011 event, which raised $160,000, offered additional educational programs and eleven $1,000 grants to gymnasts. In February 2012, the meet will move to the much bigger Philadelphia Convention Center to accommodate more entrants and spectators.
The competition is an intensely emotional experience for everyone involved. "This isn't just another meet," explains board member Kim DiBiaggio. "Far from it. Normally, you compete, you get your prizes and you leave. But here, we all stay to listen to the educational speakers. It's so moving. When the girls file in, many people are in tears."
For one day the fighting spirit that's a necessary part of gymnastics is put aside. Everyone joins together for a bigger purpose. As Kim's daughter Jessica, a competitor, explains, "At a regular meet, each team wears its own distinct leotard. At the Pink meet, everybody wears the same pink leotard. It's just one giant team. And it's awesome."
Originally published in the October 17, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.