Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

BCEF celebrates 10 years with signing of 5,000th check


Breast Cancer Emergency Fund board President Cynthia Hester, left, signs checks – including the program's 5,000th – as Leslie Ewing looks on. Executive Director Mike Smith is at right and in the center background is BCEF's new logo. (Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland)
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A solemn but celebratory cheer filled the Breast Cancer Emergency Fund's office earlier this month as staff, donors, and volunteers celebrated its 10th anniversary with the signing of its 5,000th check and the unveiling of the organization's new logo.

Mike Smith, executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund and its sister organization, BCEF, which shares AEF's Grace Street office South of Market, signed a stack of checks along with board President Cynthia Hester on June 9. One of those was the milestone check written to help cover a breast cancer client's rent, utility bill, or medical bill.

"I think what we do really resonates with people," said Smith, grateful for the support from large and small donors who help the agency write its checks to clients in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.

Soon the agency will expand its services to Santa Clara County.

Providing in a time of need

For a decade BCEF has provided emergency financial assistance to low-income women being treated for breast cancer in San Francisco by sending out an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 worth of checks every month that go to pay landlords, utility companies, or medical providers, said Smith, about the organization that operates on an estimated $950,000 budget.

BCEF is a separate legal entity from AEF but shares office space, staff resources, and has the same board of directors.

Smith pointed out that unlike AIDS clients, many of whom benefit from government programs that subsidize medical costs, those same programs "really aren't there for the women with breast cancer," he said.

While breast cancer strikes primarily women, BCEF does provide services to men with the disease as well, according to its website.

Launching BCEF a decade ago was a "way for the men in our community who were fighting and are fighting the battle against AIDS to commemorate the lives of the women and honor the women in the women's community who really stepped forward and took care of gay men in the early days of AIDS," said Smith. "We don't ever want to forget our roots. We come from fierce powerful women."

Hester added that many of the fund's clients are low-income with little or no health insurance.

Oftentimes medical leave and sick time quickly run out during treatment, leaving clients earning less than $1,000 a month no safety net.

"We would like them to be able to go through treatment with dignity and without having to worry about financial needs," said Hester, who has lost family members and people close to her to both AIDS and breast cancer. "Our mission is simple – we pay the bills when our clients are too sick to work."

The Bay Area Reporter asked to speak with a BCEF client about the agency's services but Smith declined, citing a policy of not asking clients "to do this sort of thing."

BCEF's revenue is primarily raised through benefits and other events and donors. The money is spent as quickly as it comes in, according to Smith.

"It's a real honor for BCEF to be at a milestone like 5,000 checks," said Smith, who pointed out that the moment marked the "culmination of the vision of Leslie [Ewing] and Rebecca [LePere] and so many people who went before who wanted to see the organization get to a point where we could be that meaningful."

Modeled on the work of AEF, BCEF was co-founded by Ewing, then-board president of AEF and now executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley, and her late partner, Rebecca LePere. LePere lost her four-year battle against breast cancer in 2002.

AEF is an early AIDS organization that started in 1982. It provides emergency financial assistance to qualifying HIV/AIDS clients.

"The only template that we had was we talked to our friends with HIV," said Ewing.

In 2001, when BCEF's doors opened it assisted 42 women who were receiving breast cancer treatment, said Smith. Today, the fund assists 450 women and in the past 10 years it has spent $1,321,000 to help women, men, and their families as they go through treatment, added Hester, who has served as AEF/BCEF president for four of her seven years on the board.

"I have seen firsthand what that disease can do and I have seen firsthand what people can do who have resources," said Hester, a breast cancer activist for the past decade. "There is no way I could not respond and do something. I am committed to doing it until we don't need to do it any longer, until either there is no breast cancer and AIDS or until there's the health infrastructure that gives everybody the health insurance and the health care services that they need without it having to be a financial burden on them."

"There is a lot the breast cancer community can learn from the way the AIDS organizations have corroborated and coordinated their services and the way they fundraised over the years," Smith added.

Ewing, who was present to commemorate the landmark moment and launched BCEF's new sustainer donor program this year, addressed the estimated 25 individuals in the room. She pulled out a button and held it up, and humbly said, "I was rooting around in my garage lately and I found a button and it says, 'Future generations will turn to you and ask 'What did you do to end the AIDS crisis?'"

The question now, Ewing said, is, "What did you do to end the health crisis?"

BCEF set to expand

Smith is both excited and nervous about BCEF expanding into Santa Clara County on July 1.

"I just have to have faith that we will find the money and in no time at all we will be at our 10,000th check and really helping women throughout the region," he said.

Last year, the fund joined forces with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, administering the foundation's Cure Diagnostic Services Fund in Alameda, Contra Costa, and western Solano counties.

Entering its second decade and growing, BCEF also unveiled its new look at the recent check-signing.

The new logo, designed with the assistance of the Tap Root Foundation, departs from the cutout of a pink heart, similar to the AEF logo. Instead, the logo is a negative image with a white umbrella and a mauve background.

"We really have something that speaks to the kind of work that we do," said Smith. "This is shelter from a storm."

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