Most Philly participants welcome changes to annual Susan G. Komen breast cancer event

Breast cancer survivors dance on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Breast cancer survivors dance on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

The annual Susan G. Komen fundraiser for breast cancer research and awareness returned to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway Sunday morning with a new format and name.

The Komen foundation announced earlier this year that its signature “Race for the Cure” 5K — which had become a 28-year Mother’s Day tradition — would be replaced with the new “More Than Pink” community walk, a gated event requiring paid registration to enter that focuses more on the work made possible with the money raised.

Rachel Craig from Havertown and her friends walk along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

While the move raised eyebrows among some supporters, most of the pink-clad attendees WHYY spoke to said they supported the changes.

“The purpose is to raise resources to help. If you’re just walking and you’re not registering or even donating, that still lends to the challenge (of curing breast cancer),” said Lynnelle Boose, a breast cancer survivor from Mt. Airy.

Elaine Grobman, CEO of Susan G. Komen Philadelphia, said after looking at the numbers, the organization could “no longer justify diverting sponsor dollars to cover costs of huge crowds of people not supporting the mission.”

Dancers perform for the crowds at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

While the race drew tens of thousands of supporters to the Parkway each year, organizers said the majority of attendees weren’t paying participants, nor were they fundraising for the cause.

Organizers also considered that 5Ks don’t draw the crowds they used to with the growing popularity of longer races.

“Financially, when the day was done, we were left with less dollars than we needed to complete our mission,” Grobman said. “You know the old story: No money, no mission.”

Crowds at the foot of the Philadelphia museum of Art wait for hundreds of breast cancer survirors to march down the art museum steps. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

‘It forces people to contribute’

While the “Race for the Cure” event required registered participants to pay a fee, there was nothing to stop those who did not register or donate from attending the event, which past attendees said made for a more festival-like atmosphere.

All participants in Sunday’s “More Than Pink” event were required to pay a fee and show a wristband to enter the gated area — $35 for adults and $15 for children — and could walk as many laps between Eakins Oval and Logan Circle as they wished. T-shirts were only handed out to people who raised $100 or more. Volunteers, including doctors from area hospitals, were on site to outline what services Komen helped fund.

“To me, that’s a good thing. It forces people to contribute,” said Joann McLean, of Gray’s Ferry. A “Race for the Cure” participant since 2006, McLean welcomed the new format. “It’s supposed to be a fundraiser, not so much of a giveaway.”

McLean said she started participating in the 5K as a way to stay active and support a good cause. But the mission of finding a cure for breast and other cancers became more personal as McLean saw more people she knew lose their lives to cancer, including her father.

“I do encourage my family and friends that even if they cannot register or walk, that they still donate,” Boose said.

Though she was concerned this would hurt efforts to raise awareness, Boose has come around. She also thinks the new gated event is safer for participants.

Some participants worry about exclusion

Still, people like Kim Olson are on the fence.

Olson, of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, said she and her family have walked on Mother’s Day for the past 10 years in honor of her mother, Inez, who died of breast cancer.

Members of the Olson family show off their Team Inez jackets. They are walking in memory of Inez Olson who passed away in 2003. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

“I understand it because there were 30,000 people here last year and only 10,000 people that actually registered and so some of that money went toward paying the city for all the people that came that didn’t register,” Olson said.

Olson understands why organizers would prioritize raising money for research, as opposed to making it a community event.

“On the other hand, it becomes a little exclusive, and so I’m more about inclusiveness and so I’m still kind of processing it,” she said, though her two sisters said it would encourage more fundraising.

Shown is a photo of Inez Olson who passed away in 2003. On the 16th anniversary of her passing, members of her family joined the More Than Pink Walk. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

In addition to supporting breast cancer research, Grobman said Komen helps fund mammograms, clinical exams, and treatment for those who would otherwise be unable to pay. The organization also lobbies lawmakers for additional federal funding for breast cancer research and for lowering barriers to treatment.

Maria Serrano, an eight-year breast cancer survivor, said she benefited from the funding firsthand. She was uninsured when she was diagnosed and, holding back tears, she said Jefferson University Hospitals, a social worker named Rita, and Susan G. Komen helped her pay for treatments and connect with the resources she needed, including support groups.

For that reason, Serrano has participated in the walk for eight years and has always paid to do so, but she’s disappointed by the change in format.

“It should have been the way it used to be,” Serrano said. “Leave it open where everybody could just go. Now, if nobody pays, you got to go by yourself.”

In the past, Serrano said she managed to get some of her friends and relatives to pay to do the walk with her. The people who couldn’t pay were still welcome to join and she liked that.

This year, Serrano attended the event alone.

Marchers endure a steady rainfall to participate in the More Than Pink Walk. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

Event organizers are still tallying Sunday’s on-site registrations and day-of donations. But as of Saturday, registrations were down from 2018 by about 2,000 people. Despite the lag, Dawn Mills, a spokeswoman for Komen, said the organization had already raised more than $500,000, beating last year’s total.

“Look, we’re females. We don’t wear the same dress for 28 years,” Grobman said. “We’re making a change.”

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