All photos/art by Matt Kalinowski
Mel Simmons never cared much for pink. Still, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she embraced the color’s symbolism: solidarity and support in the face of a disease that kills 40,000 women a year. During her battle, Mel spoke publicly, raised money, and somehow managed to keep her sense of humor. She loved to hand out small gifts to her caregivers and fellow patients. When a friend brought her several dozen bracelets from Istanbul, Mel passed them out like party favors.
“That’s just how she was,” says Pauline Alighieri of Norwood, Massachusetts. “When you became a friend of Mel’s, you felt you had arrived.” Pauline was a friend of Mel’s for more than 35 years. They’d met when they were starting their careers as flight attendants out of Logan Airport. In recent years, the relationship deepened. “We talked endlessly about girl stuff, about our kids … We were both single moms,” says Pauline.
When Mel passed away in 2005, her friends decided to sell “Mel’s bracelets” with a goal of raising $5,000 to keep funding the kind of research and support that had helped keep her alive for five years. The bracelets were bright and perky, just like Mel. And they sold like hotcakes: One year later, Mel’s friends had raised $1 million. Founded by Pauline, the Friends of Mel Foundation, based in Hingham, has now raised more than $4 million to date.
Learning to run a foundation is new for Pauline (she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Emmanuel College in 2005), but the spirit of giving is in her family’s genes. Her mom, Helen Ouellette, now in her eighties, has volunteered for the Red Cross, participated in toy and food drives, and adopted families at Christmastime. Pauline, the oldest of seven kids, remembers the year her parents lost their children’s store in Lewiston, Maine, to fire. “Dad still brought baskets of food to the church for Christmas that year, for other families in need,” she recalls. Helen is still giving, orchestrating a pumpkin parade each year in Auburn, Maine, to raise money for the Maine Children’s Cancer Program. And 2008 was a banner year: Friends of Mel matched Helen’s October 2007 pumpkin proceeds, together giving a total of $36,000 to the center.
Under Pauline’s direction, the foundation targets research, as well as education and support for cancer patients and their caregivers. “Our goal is to get them over that hump,” she says, “while they’re in treatment. The kind of thing a friend does when the chips are down.”
Four-year cancer survivor Karen Rein says a recent wellness weekend cosponsored by Friends of Mel at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire “was a turning point.” In spending time with 200-plus other survivors, Karen saw that she “hadn’t completely dealt with the emotional and mental piece of recovery, and that was holding me back from living my life to the fullest and moving fearlessly toward the future. What a gift this new mindset is.”
Learn more: 781-740-2511; friendsofmel.org