For more than a decade, Ashley Patterson worked in the sports industry for various gyms and health and fitness centers in St. Louis and California the state.
However after moving back to her native Jefferson City six years ago, she discovered a program that endeared her to a cause now close to her heart. As the health and fitness director for the Jefferson City YMCA, she worked with LIVESTRONG, which is a free, research-based physical activity and well-being program to help cancer patients stay healthy.
“The positive outlook of these individuals I worked with is what drew me in. There was no one complaining. Yes, there were good days and bad days, but the positive energy and their will to work out, get stronger and live better was amazing,” she said. “A lot of people that go through a cancer diagnosis have that same energy and will to fight and live.”
When a job for a senior community development manager at the American Cancer Society’s north region was posted, Ashley decided it was her chance to help fight and garner support for those like her LIVESTRONG friends and countless others each day. She now has served in that position for three years in one of only four American Cancer Society offices in Missouri, right in her hometown. Whether it is helping volunteers raise funds for the society’s research, orchestrate community events or connect cancer survivors and their loved ones with important resources, Ashley feels she has found her true calling.
“We work with lots of different people. They are volunteering; these people want to be here. … I enjoy having people working with me that are driven for a cause. That is fulfilling to me that they are going to keep going until a cure is found,” she said. “The volunteers and survivors are what keep me going. The volunteers’ passion level is beyond anything I’ve seen in any other work environment. The survivors’ gratitude is humbling. You might think, I can’t even imagine what you are going through and you are thanking me; it gives me goosebumps. Those aspects make me realize I’m where I need to be.”
Ashley has watched loved ones fight and survive cancer, as well as others who have unfortunately passed away. Her grandmother is a multiple cancer survivor, soon to celebrate her 98th birthday this fall.
“When she was relatively young, in her late 30s/early 40s, she got breast cancer, fought it and survived it. She also had various bouts of skin cancer and just a few years ago got colon cancer,” he said. “She is still kicking and fighting and probably the longest survivor I know. She is not going to let cancer take her down.”
Ashley has helped with individual fundraisers aiding family members and friends diagnosed with cancer who needed financial assistance. However, it wasn’t until she stepped into her American Cancer Society role that she experienced the scale of fundraising done in Cole County for cancer research. Only three or four days after she started her job, she helped at the largest Relay for Life in Missouri and second largest in a 13-state region: the Relay for Life of Cole County at the Jefferson City Jaycees Fairgrounds.
“I had seen them in other towns, but I had not been to the one in Jefferson City. I was overwhelmed with the amount of work and dedication that the volunteers put in,” she said. “The creative aspect of all the teams and all the people – babies in strollers up to older folks out enjoying it – I had this overwhelming feeling of this is where I need to be. It was part of a community. All these people from different backgrounds and with different stories were all here for that one reason.”
Last year, 70 teams gathered to raise funds for cancer research and the 2018 Relay for Life, held annually in early June. Bankers, business owners and survivor groups stood alongside students from Cole County R-5 Schools in Eugene and the Relay Rascals, a group of children under 10 years old, who all created unique ways throughout the year and at the event to raise that money.
“People enjoy the event and fight back and give back on their scale. Everybody can feel like they participate and do their part, whether it’s a $1 or $100,” Patterson said of the event, which is free and open to the public to participate.
“The other thing that makes Cole County’s event so special is the luminaria portion. We have so many people to recognize unfortunately; we may have 2,000 lit candles that each represent someone’s fight, whether they are still fighting or lost their battle. … This community does it very well, very tastefully and recognizes a lot of people.”
By mid-August, Relay For Life of Cole County 2018 had raised more than $216,000, which adds to the more than the $5 million the event has raised since its inception about 20 years ago.
That is because of the volunteers’ efforts, drive and determination to raise that amount of money, Ashley said.
“It is them individually, them trying to do something, and that is the touching part,” she added. “People are putting their heart into their efforts. They are fundraising to make a difference.”
One of Ashley’s main roles with the American Cancer Society is to support volunteers, which are “the real source behind ACS and the Relay for Life movement.”
Recruiting and supporting volunteers is her main objective, along with providing those volunteers and survivors with the resources and tools they might need.
Ashley handles Cole, Saline, Gasconade and Macon counties, even though the Jefferson City office assists counties down to Lake of the Ozarks and up to the Iowa border. She sees these volunteers making big strides and adaptations to support their fundraising efforts. For example, Relay For Life of Saline County in Marshall, Missouri, raised $50,000 last year, which to scale is a large amount, Ashley said, and many counties are moving their events to the fall when it is cooler and can get area schools involved.
“Each county and community has a different feel and makeup of their teams and volunteers, but it is for the same reason. A lot of them are doing something different and trying something new,” she said. “No idea is a crazy idea. … There is a way to do pretty much do everything; it might take a little work or the right avenue or venue. But I try not to say ‘No.’ I say, ‘Let’s figure it out and make this happen.’”
Ashley recently took on MU Athletics and the Real Men Wear Pink campaign, which encourages about 30 Jefferson City and Columbia community leaders and celebrities to wear pink every day during October in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and raise funds for the society.
Only in its third year, the Real Men Wear Pink campaign participants raised $20,000 the first year and $50,000 last year, with a goal to surpass that amount this fall among both returning and new “real men.”
“It is amazing to see these men jump in and fight for their wives, daughters, mothers, aunts and loved ones, or even themselves. … They are allowed to interpret fundraising in however they feel most comfortable and most passionate about. They all do different things and they have fun with it,” Ashley said. “The sky is limit when you get a bunch of community leaders together and they are passionate about something.”
The Cole County ACS sector also plans a variety of “pink events” recognizing and raising funds specifically for breast cancer awareness and research, with a committee of 10 to 12 ladies who organize these increasingly popular activities in Jefferson City. The first and longest running is the Pink Ribbon Golf Tournament, celebrating 15 years on Oct 2 at Oak Hills Golf Center. Participants can join in a four-woman scramble or a co-ed scramble, with at least two women playing.
The 11th Annual Pink Up the Pace 5K is a family-friendly fundraiser where participants can run or walk, or others can simply volunteer. This year it is held at 2 p.m. Oct. 7 with the start and finish line at the North Jefferson City Recreation Area Pavilion. On Oct. 18, the third annual Pretty in Pink Ladies Cocktail Party is held from 5-8 p.m. at Revel Catering, where guests celebrate, honor and remember those diagnosed with breast cancer.
With breast cancer being the No. 1 type of cancer women contract, its volunteer and fundraising efforts to help the American Cancer Society with research and grants specifically for that cause is increasing and ample. Yet, Ashley said there are many other types of cancer that individuals are fighting for, including a new “blue” movement that aids men diagnosed with testicular cancer. In fact, the 2019 Relay For Life of Cole County theme is “Colors of Cancer,” showing that there is another movement to support all cancers.
“We do have grants in breast cancer, others in childhood cancer types and one in lung cancer. At the American Cancer Society, we try to take in the whole picture,” she said. “We are not just pink, we are not just blue or whatever color it might be; it is the whole emphasis on let’s find better ways to treat and prevent cancer.”
In Cole County, cancer survivors of all types and their caregivers have ample, free opportunities to stay in touch with an about 15-volunteer committee establishing three separate activities specifically for theses individuals. A survivor and caregiver breakfast is held each spring, along with a BBQ in May and a Sunday lunch in the fall.
Outside of community fundraisers and supportive events, the American Cancer Society also has a large, nationwide network of resources they can provide to individuals diagnosed with cancer. On that larger scale, the society’s national cancer information center is open 24-7 with specialists to answer a variety of questions or simply be a friendly, supportive ear.
Closer to home, survivors can access resources locally at the Jefferson City American Cancer Society office. Ashley said someone in Jefferson City traveling to St. Louis for treatment can utilize free Hope Lodge services, where they are provided with a room, shuttle to and from treatments, meals and more. Ashley said she also enjoys interacting with ladies who select a synthetic or human hair quality wig at the office’s wig room.
“Having that one-on-one relationship with someone actively going through cancer is so meaningful and brings what we do at the society all together,” she said.
Ashley admits her journey to facilitating events for volunteers raising money for cancer research and resources as been an interesting one. However, she is so happy to work with the Cole County community, her hometown.
“There is no community like this community. The social activities here are not social activities; they are fundraisers. Your money is typically going in part or totally to change, help or do something for people in our community,” she said. “That is why we’ve been so successful; it is the people in this community.”
For more information, call the American Cancer Society office at 573-635-4839, email Ashley at email@example.com or visit Cole County PINK Events – American Cancer Society on Facebook, @colecountypink.
15th Annual ACS Pink Ribbon Golf Tournament
Oak Hills Golf Center, lunch provided at 11 a.m. and tee-off at noon. Reception immediately following.
Pink up the Pace 5K
Start and finish at North Jefferson City Recreation Area Pavilion (just north of Missouri River Bridge), 1 p.m. registration and 2 p.m. race start. Race day registration is $25 for adults and $20 for youth (17 and younger).
Pretty in Pink Ladies Cocktail Party
Revel Catering and Events, 5-8 p.m. Celebrating, honoring and remembering those that have had a breast cancer diagnosis. Food from Johnny Graham and Revel Catering, cocktails and refreshments, silent and live auctions, and entertainment from Dave Baker. Tickets sold in advance.
• Ashley graduated from Jefferson City High School, playing volleyball, basketball, softball and track. She also played basketball, softball and volleyball at Westminster College, with volleyball taking her to Columbia College her senior year.
• She still loves sports. She often cheers on the St. Louis Cardinals, plays softball locally and loves watching her 10-year-old nephew’s baseball games.
• Three years ago, Ashley married Chris Patterson, an Illinois native who works for Veterans United Home Loans in Columbia. Chris has a daughter and the couple has two dogs, CJ and Amos.
• Ashley loves to paint and be crafty, claiming Pinterest as her best friend. She said art is calming to her.