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Albuquerque continues to make strides against breast cancer

Posted Friday, March 6, 2009, in New Mexico Business Weekly

by Thomas Munro
NMBW Staff

Geraldine Esquivel will never forget the urgent call she received from the starting line of Albuquerque's first Making Strides event.

"I can't hold them back!" the organizer told her, referring to the participants in the walkathon.

The district executive director for the American Cancer Society's New Mexico operations says that has summed up the experience of the event over the past decade, as it has seemed to take on a life of its own, consistently exceeding the expectations of its organizers.

"It seems like it's not an American Cancer Society event – it's their event," she says.

When Esquivel first brought Making Strides to Albuquerque, it was unclear whether the format, which had thrived in big cities like Boston, would work in a community on the scale of the Duke City. It turned out she needn't have worried – she planned for 3,000 walkers that first year, and got 6,000. The walkers continue to come out of the woodwork of their own accord and numbered 19,000 in 2008.

At BlueCross BlueShield of New Mexico, which has been a flagship sponsor of the event for nine years, there's no question that employees take a personal stake.

"Eighty-three percent of our work force is female," said BCBSNM President Liz Watrin. "Day-to-day, they work with people who are fighting the battle or have lost someone to breast cancer or have won their fight."

The event's other flagship corporate sponsors, Walmart (seven years) and First Financial Credit Union (one year), also have a high percentage of women among their employees.

Watrin says her company designs a team t-shirt each year with a list of 130 names of family, friends and co-workers impacted by breast cancer. With the walk two months away, the shirt has already filled up, she says.

She says one of the keys to the success of the Making Strides benefit is how easy the American Cancer Society makes it for corporations to participate.

"The support is really key to helping us focus on our fundraising events and on making it fun," Watrin says.

Esquivel says her organization has, indeed, taken every step it could to make it easy to give. Beyond registration, for which there is no fee, there are no other meetings or reporting requirements. She will go out herself to do an informational presentation for potential flagship sponsors.

"This is the easiest event to get involved with I've ever seen," she says.

Ease has also been increased with the creation of a new Web site for the event, www.cancer.org/makingstrides.

"Our online fundraising capabilities have really exploded on the scene," she says.

Esquivel says last year the event raised more than $40,000 from each of its flagship sponsors. For BCBSNM, for instance, that included the $5,000 base donation and $36,000 in employee contributions – approximately $40 per employee. Watrin says those employee contributions were up from $24,000 the year before.

The 2008 event raised about $550,000, of which 40 percent goes to the national American Cancer Society, which uses it exclusively for breast cancer research, including at least one researcher working at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. Among other local uses of the funding, $100,000 went to pay for 1,000 mammograms through a state program, $70,000 went to mobile mammography and $10,000 went to a mammography reminder system.

"We still have a high percentage of women who don't get screened," Esquivel says, underlining the publicity value of the Making Strides walk.

Making Strides is a sponsored five-mile walk. It will start at Cottonwood Mall April 26, with staggered starting times between 7:30 and 10 a.m.

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