Niagara-on-the-Lake resident and business owner Elise Gasbarrino is tickled pink to get the gang back together on September 17. Between now and then, though, there are a few kilometres to cover.
Gasbarrino is the founder and executive director of Pink Pearl Canada. The charitable foundation provides support, facilitates connections and empowers self-identifying young women across Canada who are dealing with cancer.
PInk Pearl is holding its annual Together 5K Walk or Run, to be done any time between September 10 and 17 in any neighbourhood, and following that up with the return of their Family Support Day in NOTL next Saturday.
At just 21 years old, Gasbarrino was faced with a cancer diagnosis of her own. At the time, her only choice for treatment was to travel to the Juravinski Cancer Centre in Hamilton. She rarely saw anyone near her age at Juravinski, and she desperately looked for other young women like herself with whom she might be able to share her experience.
“Nothing existed for women in their 20s,” she tells The Local, “very few organizations that supported young adults. Some supported younger kids, and others supported older people. But I was going through this while I was still in university, then I was moving away from home, getting a career. There was nothing that was specific for young adults.”
Her family banded together to show their support, organizing a benefit for Elise and other young female cancer patients. The benefit turned into an annual event, and after seven years they took the step of organizing and formalizing Pink Pearl Canada as a foundation.
It began nine years ago with a retreat at The Good Earth Food and Wine Company in Beamsville. Word caught on, and the popularity grew. Soon, women between the ages of 18 and 40 with cancer were attending retreats at NOTL locations such as White Oaks, Queen’s Landing, The Pillar and Post and The Prince of Wales hotels. Typically, these are one- or two-night gatherings for education, fellowship, relaxation and support.
Proceeds from those events, and others such as their Black and White with a Touch of Pink evenings have helped to raise funds to expand the organization’s offerings to young women. Today, they provide post-secondary scholarships, support packages and local socials, and have begun offering one-on-one counselling services the past two years. They are also expanding their retreats into locations such as Calgary and Halifax.
Sarah Hunt will be doing the Together 5K walk next week. The 35-year-old from Cambridge, who has a rare sarcoma in the nerve bundle in her arm, discovered Pink Pearl in 2017 while searching for support online.
“I had no one to connect with,” she recalls. “It’s really different going through cancer at 29 or 30. The other people sitting around in the waiting room are older, retired, they have money saved up. I had just finished my masters (in speech language pathology) and was starting my career.”
Since her diagnosis Hunt has undergone 25 high doses of radiation and three major surgeries, which have left her with limited function in her arm. Finding other young women experiencing similar things was a huge help for her.
“When you had a bad day and something didn’t go right, it was great to have someone to talk to,” Hunt says. “When you had a new struggle you could reach out and find others who had gone through the same thing. It meant a lot to know you weren’t the only one.”
Having a chance to meet fellow Pink Pearl participants in person at the retreats was Hunt’s saving grace. The opportunity to relax, share a meal or go for a swim with other women was a welcome break from the treatments and the reality of cancer.
Gasbarrino adds that many who take part in Pink Pearl Canada’s programs are going through pivotal times in their lives. A cancer diagnosis makes those moments harder to deal with.
“It could affect your fertility, it can affect your financial health, your ability to take care of yourself physically, to make that move for your career,” she explains. “There are a lot of life events that happen during those formative years. A cancer diagnosis can prohibit a lot of those things.”
The peer-to-peer support that Gasbarrino found through the benefits organized by her and her family made her journey much easier to take. Since forming the organization, she’s continued to ensure that Pink Pearl focuses on the needs of the program participants.
In the nine years since Pink Pearl Canada began, almost 4,000 women across the country have participated in their programs. Close to $700,000 has been raised since that time, and many donations have been made to hospitals and other charitable organizations.
Those retreats planned for Calgary and Halifax this year were actually supposed to happen two years ago. The pandemic caused their cancellation and meant that all in-person retreats were out of the question. So Gasbarrino and her team shifted to an online version.
“It was good in a way, because we were able to interact with women we wouldn’t normally get to,” says Gasbarrino. “At our last virtual retreat we had a woman from Nunavut who was able to be a part of it, and a Canadian living in Ireland. We’ll always keep some aspect of virtual programming for our people going forward.”
Gasbarrino’s family lives in NOTL, and Elise herself bought a house about seven years ago in the Chautauqua area after moving back to Canada from New York City. Since then, many of her Pink Pearl efforts have centred in this community, and she’s partnered with Maria Mavridis and her Anchor Niagara organization for many recent fundraisers, including one at local restaurant Ruffino’s last spring. And, in July, the Par for Pink Pearl Tournament at the NOTL Golf Club raised more than $8,000 for the foundation.
Niagara Falls resident Ashley Waters golfed in the tournament this summer. She also participated in last year’s walk, leading a team of 28 friends, family members and their children in support of her mother, who was dealing with breast cancer.
“Being my Mom’s caregiver, I didn’t really feel that I had control over much,” she tells The Local. “Being able to focus on the run, organizing people to come together, getting t-shirts made, it was a great relief. And doing the run was a lot of fun.”
“Elise is amazing, supporting the younger demographic,” Waters continues. “The retreats bring people together to form a network. It’s really crucial during that time to have that support system.”
Waters will once again be out there running, and she plans to be at next week’s Family Support Day. Participants will gather casually with their spouses, partners, family and friends at Gasbarrino’s Style Canada store on King Street. They’ll be offered food and beverages, maybe do a shorter walk together, then have a chance to enjoy a casual afternoon at Simcoe Park or elsewhere in town.
Gasbarrino’s financial goal for the Together 5K Walk or Run is $15,000, but the Family Support Day will put a very special cap on the week.
“We’re excited to be able to do something in person again,” says Gasbarrino, “after not being able to for so long. We’re hoping to get around 40 to 50 people for the event. We will get to end the week with everyone together. That is something that you can’t quantify so much.”
For information and to register for the walk, visit pinkpearlcanada.org/together-5k/.