Touched by the Kelly Cares Foundation

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- The same woman who once laughed until her sides hurt when her chemo-necessitated wig flew off her head, out an opening elevator door and into a large crowd of people was now trying to find the humor in her latest bout with humility.

This time it was a matter of friendly fire -- well, supposedly.

Paqui Kelly had survived two bouts with breast cancer with more than just surges of courage, like when she once told her husband -- current Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly -- that his offer to walk away from coaching indefinitely was appreciated but unnecessary. Humor, too, seemed to pop up on every page of the inspirational narrative.

And now it was popping up in Paqui's kitchen, with the mother of three finding herself as the unwitting punch line.

"My kids kept asking me why I was dressed up, and kept pressing when I wouldn't tell them," she recalled. "I said, 'It's a work thing.'

"They kept pressing. Finally, I said, 'OK, I'm a celebrity chef today.'

Paqui volunteered that her own sister used the sales pitch to the local event of: "Please buy a ticket; you won't have to eat any of the food she actually cooks" in order to unload tickets to the charity fundraiser.

And the three teenage kids?

"They busted a gut," Paqui said of Patrick, Grace and Kenzel. "I mean, they couldn't stop laughing. They're like. 'Do they know who you are?' 'Cause, you're not a celebrity, and you certainly can't cook.' "

The vindicatory twist is Paqui Kelly knows very well who she is 11½ years after a lump discovered in a chance mammogram kick-started a journey that now serves as both the inspiration for and the portal into the Kelly Cares Foundation's mission.

Harder to define, and it's by design, is the foundation itself as it plops a milestone fifth anniversary candle onto its proverbial cake.

What started as a movement to help bring awareness, knowledge and funds to the fight against breast cancer, still very much embraces that thread. But there are so many other tentacles and so much more reach to a charity that celebrates its unconventionalities in terms of scope, (wide) size (small) and the desire to be first responders (in a big way).

Each year the funds disbursed have grown -- to almost $500,000 this year and more than $1.7 million total since 2009.

"We could have sat back and continued to raise money through our first five years," Brian Kelly said, "because as a 501(c)(3), you really don't have to disburse anything through your first five years. But we made a conscious decision that we were going to raise money to give it back right away.

"We've taken a different path in building this foundation, because it's just the way we're wound. Maybe if we were accountants, we'd do things differently."

"I get the idea of endowments," Paqui said, "but when you're sitting there turning away people you want to help ..."

The list of people and organizations that have been helped is as varied as it is lengthy. The Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund, the initiative of rival Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and his wife, is among the beneficiaries. The Kelly Cares Foundation has also bought tables at former Irish coach Charlie Weis' Hannah & Friends events. There's the Alabama tornado victims.

"Where there's hope, there's some help." Brian Kelly said. "That's kind of how we've taken on this foundation."

"Sometimes we've been critiqued as, 'Well, we really don't know what you guys represent,' " Paqui related.

Here's a glimpse, five years in, at what that looks like from some of the individuals and organizations that have been touched by the Kelly Cares Foundation.

Kim Zobrosky, United Health Services Breast Health Program

The 11-year breast cancer survivor is called an angel by many who know her face but not necessarily her name.

Zobrosky sees it as her calling to reach out to women undergoing breast cancer treatments, offering a blanket, some apple juice, a hug -- or all three if it so warrants.

She also runs a couple of support groups for breast cancer patients and helps through more formal channels in her work with United Health Services.

The connection with Kelly Cares Foundation is filling in gaps where insurance and financial realities fall short. The insurance industry generally doesn't equip women under 40 with the means to even pay for basic mammograms. Both Zobrosky and Paqui Kelly were under 40 when their cancers were first detected.

A larger issue is that even when the women are able to secure free mammograms, the biopsies required to detect whether cancer exists once a lump is discovered are cost-prohibitive for many.

"So a lump is discovered and they have to live with knowing that something might be wrong, but they can't do anything about it," Zobrosky said. "I can't entirely explain it, but I can tell you from experience this is true: The fear of paying for breast cancer treatments often exceeds the fear of the breast cancer itself in young women. Do you help get yourself better or put food in the refrigerator for your family? That's the choice a lot of these women are confronted with."

Zobrosky said last year Kelly Cares' Think Pink golf event paid for biopsies for four local women who

didn't otherwise have the means to pay for them.

"All four turned out to be cancer-free," Zobrosky said. "And because of that gift, they're worry-free. They don't have to go through life wondering whether they have cancer. (Foundation executive director) Lisa Klunder and Paqui are the angels. And it's not just the money that made a difference. Paqui Kelly came and spoke to one of my support groups. She touched all of us and changed all of us for the better."

Steve Camilleri, South Bend Center for the Homeless

The strong connection between the center and both the Notre Dame and South Bend community helped make South Bend's homeless center a paradigm in the industry long before Kelly Cares came into the picture.

But Camilleri, the center's executive director, said tangibly and intangibly, KCF makes a difference in the center's mission.

Klunder, for instance, was a part of the Dancing With Our Stars fund-raiser that brought in more than $430,000. Paqui inspired the center's residents (Camilleri and his staff call them guests) with her story.

And then there was a joint venture last October between Kelly Cares and the Notre Dame football team's Irish Around The Bend group, in which roughly 90 ND football players came down to the center and had dinner with the 200 guests.

Each player put together care packages, funded by KCF, for the guests, with a note written by the players, winter necessities like gloves and hats and Notre Dame swag in each one.

"It was really powerful," Camilleri said. "And they were talking about it clear through to Christmas.''

Steward "Andy" Bullock, Harper Cancer Research Institute

The Harper Cancer Research Institute, located a shanked punt away from the Kelly Cares offices on Eddy Street, is a joint venture between Notre Dame and Indiana University's med school in South Bend in which collaborative research isn't just a great concept, it's how they do business every day.

It brings together different disciplines, say engineering and synthetic chemistry, that wouldn't normally be in the same lab. The results of these unions have been ground-breaking in terms of pursuing cancer solutions and treatments.

"Collaborative research is the way forward," said Bullock, the institute's associate director. "Everybody is trying to do this. But a huge institution that's been doing things the same way for a long time has trouble changing. When I was in the Navy, we called it 'institutional inertia.' It's really tough to turn a battleship that's been going the same way for a long time.

"We didn't have to change. We didn't need to build a new infrastructure. We started out this way. And being small and nimble, like we are, has its advantages."

Not that institutional inertia doesn't have its moments at Harper, especially when it comes to the rigidity of federal grants. The grants allow for pursuit of an original idea, but during these collaborations, often times even better ideas emerge and there wasn't an unimpeded way to fund those projects.

The Kelly Cares money has helped fill those gaps.

"Without the money, some of these research projects wouldn't exist," Bullock said. "It would just be a wonderful conversation somebody had."

One of the projects Kelly Cares funds flow into is that of Notre Dame assistant professor of chemical engineering and biomolecular engineering Basar Bilgicer.

Bilgicer has unlocked nanotechnology concepts other scientists have been pursuing for decades. In oversimplified terms, what that means to cancer patients is he is moving toward a solution in which cancer patients can perhaps someday undergo chemotherapy treatments without all the horrendous side effects.

"It could be years before this makes it to humans, if it does at all," Bullock said. "What it does represent is hope. And not incremental therapeutics, but these are opportunities for transformative progress."

Ann Rathburn-Lacopo, Saint Joseph Regional Medical Foundation

What once was a modest program involving Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center's 40-foot mobile mammography unit, has become super-charged through the contributions and raised awareness from the Kelly Cares Foundation.

A recent $250,000 gift to the hospital's soon-to-be renamed Comprehensive Breast Center will do even more for that burgeoning facility. On July 10, there will be a naming ceremony and blessing for the "Paqui and Brian Kelly Comprehensive Breast Center."

"We already had this amazing center,'' said Rathburn-Lacopo, chief development officer. "But we're enhancing it probably five-fold over the next five years. So those Kelly Cares Foundation dollars are very much making a difference."

But like many, Rathburn-Lacopo says Paqui's message makes a powerful difference too.

"She is very humble, but she does not shy away from her story," Rathburn-Lacopo said. "Some people want to put (cancer) behind them forever, and I don't blame them for that. But there are a lot of people who are glad she

doesn't. And one of them is a friend of mine.

"She met my friend and said, 'My name is Paqui.' She didn't say, 'My name is Paqui Kelly.' My friend

didn't even know who she was. What she did know is that she had breast cancer and was about to go through chemo, and this person, Paqui, helped her face that."

Had it not been for a second bout with breast cancer, in 2007 for Paqui, Kelly Cares would be celebrating anniversary No. 7. As it was, all the Kellys had a chance to do at that time was have some papers drawn up before they had to tap the brakes.

"I never felt defeated," Paqui would say of the second diagnosis years later. "It's important to know that breast cancer can happen and it will happen. It's OK to talk about it. It's OK to cry about it. It's OK to feel bad. But it's also OK to jump back on the horse."

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Brian and Paqui Kelly say they have taken a different path with Kelly Cares Foundation, whose fund disbursements have grown to almost $500,000 this year and more than $1.7 million total since 2009. (SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES)
Teresa Meyer of Granger throws a pass during a drill Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at the annual Football 101 clinic at the University of Notre Dame's Loftus Sports Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)