Ten years ago, a young mother in Dunnellon named Michelle lost her three-year fight with breast cancer. Although her family feels her loss profoundly to this day, the selfless way they have chosen to honor her life is helping thousands of local women.
During the month of October we’ll see lots of pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness (and probably some pink flamingos, too.) Advertising campaigns will urge women over 40 and younger women in high-risk categories to get their yearly mammogram. But for the nearly half of Marion County women who have trouble affording basic healthcare, it’s not always that easy. Even with insurance, high deductibles make the screening out of reach for many women. Michelle-O-Gram, started by Michelle Blauser Standridge’s family and friends, wants to make sure no one in our area goes without the testing and treatment they need.
“It’s kind of like taking something bad and turning it into something good,” says Sherry Roberts, co-founder of Michelle-O-Gram. “Michelle was always happy, always smiling. She just loved people. During the three years she was undergoing treatment she was always saying to people, ‘Get your mammogram—it’s so important.’”
Roberts remembers that even as her family was grieving, just a few weeks after Michelle’s passing in 2009, their close friend Joey Wisebaum came to her and said, “Do you think it would be OK for us to talk about this?”
Wisebaum, a breast cancer survivor and registered nurse, knew there was a great need. Roberts herself is a retired nurse, and the two women realized they could honor Michelle’s memory by helping others get potentially lifesaving healthcare. They talked to fellow members of First United Methodist Church of Dunnellon about their idea, and that first year they helped three women obtain screening mammograms.
Ten years later, the nonprofit organization has helped around 1,500 women and five men (yes—men can get breast cancer, too.) Roberts and other family members carry on without Wisebaum, who succumbed to cancer in 2015. When you talk to Roberts, it’s easy to see that, for her family, this work truly is a labor of love.
“We’re here to help people,” she says simply. “You talk to people and hear the stories they have. They end up asking you for prayer. Then they call back and they’re so thankful. They write notes and thank us. They feel like they have been given another chance. They feel like they wouldn’t have had that if Michelle-O-Gram hadn’t been there.”
This Marion County nonprofit is on track to spend $100,000 this year to help our community. It exists thanks to donated funds, and Roberts is proud to explain that all the money stays here to help local women and also that the organization has no administrative costs.
“We don’t have an office. We don’t have anybody paid,” Roberts says. “Our stamps, our brochures, everything is donated. I think it’s important for people to know we don’t have money going out for anything else.” That means 100 percent of donated funds go to pay for breast cancer screenings and BRCA gene testing and counseling as well as breast biopsies, which, although very expensive, are vital for patients who need a confirmed diagnosis to begin treatment.
Roberts and her family have made the process easy: A woman who needs assistance calls Michelle-O-Gram and leaves a message. She’ll receive a call back with instructions on how and where to schedule her procedure. No matter which test she needs, screening mammogram, diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound or biopsy, she will only pay $25 and Michelle-O-Gram will cover the rest.
Patients in Marion County usually receive care at Ocala Health’s Advanced Imaging Centers. Justin Lamb, the community relations manager for Advanced Imaging, explains that their staff has become invested in the charity.
“Advanced Imaging Centers has partnered with Michelle-O-Gram since 2010. We’re extremely proud of our joint efforts in assisting local women with obtaining a mammogram.” As part of their annual fundraising efforts, Advanced Imaging Centers sells plastic lawn pink flamingos for $12 each with proceeds going to Michelle-O-Gram. In addition, each October, Advanced Imaging Centers partners with local businesses and “flocks” the business with over 100 pink flamingos to generate donations for Michelle-O-Gram.
For the past several years, Bunco Babes Ocala have donated the proceeds of their events to Michelle-O-Gram. This May, their girls’-night-out favorite dice game tournament brought in $20,100.
“We found out about Michelle-O-Gram’s fundraising efforts through Michelle’s extended family and knew that was where our hearts belonged,” explains Candy Holman of Bunco Babes Ocala. “Michelle-O-Gram not only benefits local women, they are 100 percent not for profit and rely solely on donations with no administrative fees paid to anyone. Therefore, all the money that Bunco Babes Ocala raises annually through several fundraising events goes directly to help patients with diagnostic procedures for breast cancer detection. We are so very proud to be affiliated with Michelle-O-Gram.”
For more information on Michelle-O-Gram’s services and how to help, visit › www.michelleogram.com