When the Board of Directors of Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization abruptly closed its doors and shut down its 24/7 peer-to-peer multilingual toll-free telephone hotline service in July many wondered whether any parts of the 34-year-old Chicago-based nonprofit could or would be salvaged.
Following the subsequent Chapter 7 federal bankruptcy hearing that liquidated rather than reorganized Y-ME, After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD), a regional organization 80 miles away in suburban Milwaukee, emerged as the group that bought the rights to resurrect several of Y-ME’s valued services.
But there’s a backstory to how this match came to be, and it involves the right timing and the efforts of a number of former Y-ME staff and volunteers who sought an appropriate successor to some of the intellectual property left abandoned by the bankruptcy.
Micki Huston, an 11-year breast cancer survivor who was recruited as a Y-ME volunteer five years ago and subsequently joined the staff ultimately obtaining the position of its hotline manager until losing her job in July, told me that a number of Y-ME staff and volunteers banded together right after the closing, seeking to continue Y-ME’s mission that no one face breast cancer alone.
There was special concern that the organization’s 800-221-2141 number, which had served as a lifeline for many dealing with the disease, would no longer be available to the thousands who called for support or information at any hour of the day or night, especially since Y-ME’s Board had disconnected a recording referring callers to other similar services six hours after it was set up by former staff.
Huston said that she and more than 90 of her former colleagues had met via Facebook to discuss the future of the organization and after dismissing the idea of creating a new 501(c)3 entity as taking too long, set out to find a suitable home for some of its services and began courting a number of similar-minded breast cancer nonprofits behind the scenes.
Huston and others had also met in person and invited a Chicago television reporter to hear what they had to say days after the closing. A subsequent news report caught the attention of a member of ABCD’s Board who lived in the viewing area, and notified ABCD Executive Director Ginny Finn about the situation.
Finn said that her organization had already begun implementing a strategic plan to expand the largely regional operation nationally and had completed its fundraising goals so money was available when it learned of the opportunity.
“Both ABCD and Y-ME had similar missions, and obtaining its assets would make it possible to move ahead by about 13 months,” she said.
At the bankruptcy hearing this fall ABCD’s bid of $25,000 beat out that of Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and although there was nothing legally binding in what the Y-ME alums wished would happen, they were extremely pleased with the new owner and many informally voted their approval, according to Huston, who added that she and about 50 other former Y-ME staff and volunteers were now joining ABCD as mentors.
Huston said she travels to Milwaukee twice a week to aid with the transition and that although she is very impressed with and enthusiastic about ABCD, she is also seeking a paying position -- the ABCD model involves an entirely volunteer cadre of mentors to keep all of its services free of charge, which is somewhat different from her former roles as a paid staff peer counselor and manager.
Finn explained that ABCD’s more than 300 trained volunteer mentors are breast cancer survivors and “co-survivors,” who offer personalized “one-to-one” support over the organization’s 800-977-4121 helpline (www.abcdbreastcancersupport.org).
“Y-ME’s primary mechanism for implementing its mission was its survivor-based hotline service. It could match breast cancer patients with breast cancer survivors, but its approach was that the hotline was the fundamental value proposition and that was emphasized,” she said. “ABCD’s fundamental value proposition is custom matching one-to-one, trained, and professionally supported volunteer mentors with those coping with breast cancer now.
“Our goal is to assure that any one diagnosed with breast cancer is offered one-to-one support.”
She said ABCD has been committed to a personalized approach ever since its founding in 1999 by Milwaukee TV journalist Melodie Wilson, who died from the disease in 2009, and has always recognized the need for a continuum of services to stay personalized.
This means that helpline participants are matched with mentors who will meet their particular needs, and although helpline hours are 9 am to 5 pm CT, mentors and participants can make their own arrangements for calling whenever is mutually convenient.
“Our helpline’s purpose is to be a reliable and up-to-date resource and a responsible, proactive conduit to other reliable complementary support services we do not offer, including researching issues when we don’t have an answer,” she said. “As a direct service provider, we stay focused on mentoring and the services needed by our participants and mentors to keep mentoring strong.”
There are plans to eventually expand the helpline’s hours, and sometime after the beginning of the year ABCD will reactivate Y-ME’s 800 number, which will not be publicized but will be automatically switched over to ABCD’s lines.
Huston said that the national helpline will also initially offer services in English and Spanish.
She recalled: “The day before Y-ME closed I took a hotline call from a woman and heard nothing but crying. We spoke for more than an hour and I felt that I had empowered her with information and calmed her down about taking things one day at a time. I promised we would be there every step of the way 24/7, and it just broke my heart that I couldn’t keep that promise [after Y-ME was shuttered].
“It was the thought of her and others who would try to call and receive a busy signal that turned my anger into determination.”