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Memorial fund for Hagerstown cancer victim eases pain of others

November 05, 2007|By HEATHER KEELS

WILLIAMSPORT - The year was 1997, the month November. It would have been the weekend of Shirley Robison's 62nd birthday, had she not died of cancer that April.

That was when Jessie Kretzer, one of Robison's five daughters, shared an idea with her family.

In Robison's final months, when every inch of her body ached, Kretzer promised her mother that her pain would not be in vain. It wasn't until months after Robison's death that it struck Kretzer that the best way to honor the woman who made hundreds of pounds of peanut brittle each year and gave most of it away to her doctors would be to continue that tradition of giving.

That's when the Shirley B. Robison Memorial Fund was born.

On Sunday, in a fire hall decorated with lavender balloons - Robison's favorite color - 310 people gathered for a sold-out basket bingo event to celebrate 10 years of helping cancer patients and their families.

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It was the biggest turnout the twice-yearly fundraiser had seen since the very first basket bingo event, held this month 10 years ago, said Vicky Yates, Robison's oldest daughter.

In those 10 years, the fund has awarded 89 grants, a total of $38,493, to local cancer patients and families that have been set back financially by the disease, Kretzer said. The average grant is about $500, and each is personalized to help where it is needed most, whether that's gas money to help with trips to the hospital, a college scholarship for a family member or a recliner for someone who can't lie down.

"You never really understand the stress this disease puts on a family - physically, emotionally, financially - until you experience it really close," Kretzer said. "The doctor will say the patient can't be left alone, and everyone looks at each other like, 'How are we going to continue this 24-seven?'"

Even with a large family and a support structure that included friends and a church community, Kretzer said her mother's illness took its toll on the family.

"A lot of families don't have what we had," she said.

The fund gets nominations for patients who have no transportation at all, and nominations for families where the sole breadwinner has cut back to work part time to take care of a sick spouse, she said.

Over the years, many of the families helped by the fund have later turned around and helped raise more money for it, Kretzer said.

Janice Jamison, whose daughter-in-law, Lynne Jamison, died of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2002, filled an entire table at Sunday's event with 38 of her family members and friends. Many of them are not regular bingo players, but they're all eager to support the fund that helped Lynne, Jamison said.

"Once people come, they see the fun we have and they tell other people," explained Jamison, herself a two-time cancer survivor.

Over 10 years, organizers have improved the event in many ways, such as offering discounts for buying tickets for two and entering "early bird" registrants for a special basket prize, said Jewell Collins, another of Robison's daughters.

The experience and word of mouth are paying off. In 2006, the fund gave a record amount of $6,841 to 14 recipients, Kretzer said.

That's even after investing more than $2,000 for the future, she said. Kretzer and her sisters hope their children will continue to administer the fund, and have been building savings so that even if the bingo events end, the organization can continue to make grants from the interest the investments generate each year.

Looking out over the lavender balloons, donated basket prizes and rows and rows of faithful supporters, Kretzer and her father, Jim Robison, agreed Shirley would be proud of what they've built over the course of a decade.

"It's gone fast," Kretzer said. "You still miss your mom like it was last year."

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