They Pack the House for Women's Health
by Lynne Hewes
Sometimes great things happen when we least expect it: a quick idea makes a big difference, a single step takes us in a new direction, an unexpected but unified action changes lives.
Such was the case when Joe Labelle, a young Ashland man, in mourning after his grandmother died from breast cancer, suggested that good health care was too costly and inaccessible for women in rural Southwest Kansas. Why not help them out, he reasoned. How about having a basketball game and donating proceeds from that game to bring better services to women like his grandmother?
Such was the case when Benjamin Anderson, CEO of Ashland Health Center, listened to Labelle, who was working as a dishwasher at the center, and decided to take his idea one step further.
Such was the case when the idea spread, when people in the rural communities of Wilmore, Englewood, Protection, Ashland, and Coldwater began working together to form a non-profit organization they called the WEPAC Alliance, using the first letter of each of their Kansas town names.
Their idea took shape and grew beyond anyone's wildest imagination. At one recent count, because of WEPAC, over the last 16 months alone, over 177 women in their rural area have received mammograms, 53 have received colonoscopies, and 83 have received well-woman exams.
With the help of the Ashland Health Center and the Comanche County Hospital in Coldwater, WEPAC began its mission in March 2009, and through hard work and perseverance on the part of its board members and advisors, it has grown into an organization with nation-wide fame and support. It started with a simple idea for two teams of young women, one team dressed in pink, one in white, to compete in a fund-raising basketball game to raise money for breast cancer diagnosis. It quickly became a monumental yearly weekend of girls' basketball, coached by nationally known athletes, encouraged by university cheerleaders and bands, played by teenage girls from the area and "celebrity players" from across the nation, attended by over 1,000 people, and publicized by such sports giants as Sports Illustrated magazine and Fox Sports network.
"It's frightening how many people are connected by cancer," said Debbie Filson, WEPAC board treasurer and chief financial officer at the Ashland Health Center. "One time they asked all those who had had a loved one with cancer to stand, and everyone in the audience was on their feet."
That cancer connection is what has bonded all the people involved.
Soon after the group began their initial planning, Anderson decided to get some "big names" in women's basketball involved, knowing that those names would help promote the charity. He started out with calls and emails to retired Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) superstar Jackie Stiles, who was originally from Claflin, Kansas.
At first, she ignored him, but Anderson was persistent.
"I think I was like a stalker," he said. "It was email, call; call, email. Finally, she just gave up and got back to me and agreed to coach one of the teams."
Jackie Stiles' grandmother had breast cancer.
An area rancher and Kansas State University supporter had access to Shalee Lehning's phone number, so Anderson contacted her as well.
Lehning, who was raised in Sublette, set basketball records at Kansas State, and was selected by the Atlanta Dream, said, "I'm flattered that you asked."
Shalee Lehning's grandmother had died of colon cancer.
Another early find was Cynthia Cooper, top WNBA scorer and multiple gold medal winner at the Olympics. Cooper had no connection to Kansas.
"She grew up in Watts, in Los Angeles," Anderson said, "so coming to this part of the country was an eye-opener for her. We housed her with a local rancher, and on her first morning here, she went out with them and learned how to 'cake' cattle. She was awestruck."
Cynthia Cooper's mother had died of breast cancer.
In small-town Kansas, finding housing for out-of-town visitors can be a problem. Not so for WEPAC board members. They made arrangements with friends and family to house all visitors. Board secretary Brenda Fry, who works as office professional at the Comanche County Extension Office, has a sister who owns a home near Coldwater Lake.
"It can sleep 34 people," Fry said. "So it became the ideal spot to house members of the KU band when they came to play."
WEPAC board president Kim Hazen, whose day job is office manager for Home Lumber and Supply in Ashland, is amazed at what the group has been able to do.
"So many people have helped us," she said. "People open their homes to the players and coaches .I remember once, two, shall we say, fairly short local people hosted two 6'3" players from Iowa. And not only were they here, but mom and dad and grandparents came too - all very tall people. They became great friends with our local family and keep in contact still."
Because of the rural area, both housing and transportation have been issues to deal with.
"We encourage players to take their luggage as carry-ons if possible," Anderson said. "Things get lost and we're too far from airports to easily get them back. Once a player lost her shoes, and we really had to look hard to find something in her size."
In one other respect, however, location is an advantage.
"Initially, location was a challenge," Anderson said, "but by the end of six months into this, it became our biggest draw. People wanted to be a part of this thing that was happening in the middle of rural Kansas."
Hazen, at first a bit skeptical and anxious, was joyful by the night of the first year's game.
"I stood in the hallway that year, screaming, 'They're really coming! They're here!'" she said. "It was a miracle to see it all coming together."
That first WEPAC weekend raised $70,000 and supported a United Radiology screening bus coming to their small towns on a monthly basis.
"It's expensive and time-consuming to take off work and drive to Pratt or Wichita for a mammogram," Hazen said. "You can lose a whole day of work, so many women in this area just weren't getting check-ups. Now they can sign up for digital mammograms, colon checks, and well-woman visits in their own hometown. It only takes a few minutes, and there's not much criteria. As long as you're female and live in the area, you're eligible for a check-up."
Hazen is a big supporter of yearly check-ups for women.
"She just comes up to women and asks, 'Have you had your mammogram this year?'" said her friend and fellow board member Debbie Trahern, who works at the Clark County Appraiser's office. "She even offers to drive people to their checkups, if they need her to!"
Hazen admits that she's almost fanatical about the subject.
"I ask everybody," she said. "I don't want anybody else to be sick."
Trahern knows that the money raised by WEPAC is a deterrent to that.
"Our goal is to spend the money we raise," she said. "As soon as the game is over, we start to spend money to help people. We can't wait to give the money away. Our goal is to end up at zero just in time to host another game and earn more."
While WEPAC was initially started to promote breast cancer awareness and early detection, their focus is growing toward good health habits in general. In conjunction with the Friday night basketball game, there are also other activities for the public:
• A practice session is the first meeting of the teams, and the public can attend.
• KSU, KU, and WSU cheerleaders host a cheer clinic for girls, kindergarten through fifth grade. The Baptist Church in Protection helps pay fees for girls who want to attend.
• Ashland schools hold a general assembly for students. Speakers present information about healthy living and avoiding drugs and alcohol. Speakers are paid for by the Clark County Sheriff's department's confiscated drug money.
• A health forum offers sessions about wellness and the importance of good diet and exercise. The Forum has been funded by the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the Sunflower Foundation, and the Kansas Health Foundation.
Members of the WEPAC board meet monthly throughout the year to keep the momentum going, then more often as the time for the next WEPAC game nears. There is a lot to organize.
"The game is only as strong as the bond between these ladies," said Anderson.
In addition to Hazen, Fry, and Filson, other board members are Carla Filson, Protection; Beverly Clark, board vice-president from Coldwater; and Debbie York, from Wilmore. Nancy Zimmerman, administrator of Comanche County Hospital, is an advisor.
"There's a lot to do, but it's getting easier to plan every year," Hazen said. "Lots of people are coming on board. Our big-name people are starting to recruit each other. We only had to stalk people that first year!"
Don't miss the third annual WEPAC Hoops for Hope game on Friday, October 28, at the Ashland High School Gym. The official time of the game will be announced on Fox Sports Network's live broadcast schedule. On the afternoon of Thursday, October 27, Marion Jones, defamed Olympic track star and current player for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock, will speak at an assembly at Ashland High School. Also on the program will be basketball greats Jackie Stiles, Shalee Lehning (awaiting final confirmation), Shanna Crossley, Katie Smith, and Ticha Penicheiro. On Saturday, October 29, WEPAC will host its third annual free health forum, featuring WNBA superstars and women's health experts from the KU School of Medicine in Wichita. For more information or to make a donation, visit www.wepacthehouse.org. YouTube features a video called "WEPAC Hoops for Hope Story" at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bbpSU1kGsoc.