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Breast cancer charity a mother-daughter passion project

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Vembra Holnagel, right, and her daughter Kianne Farmer, of the Shades of Pink Foundation California, pose for photos at Holnagel’s Encinitas home.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kianne Farmer of La Mesa co-founded Shades of Pink Foundation California, but her mom, Vembra Holnagel of Encinitas, runs the all-volunteer organization

When a woman receives a breast cancer diagnosis, that marks day one of a long race to restore her health. But for many San Diego women, there are more immediate short-term hurdles to overcome, like paying the rent or utilities and co-pays and prescriptions not covered by insurance.

Now that gap is being filled by Shades of Pink Foundation California, an Encinitas nonprofit run by mother-daughter volunteers Vembra Holnagel, 63, and Kianne Farmer, 34. Since its founding in 2013, the all-volunteer Shades of Pink California has awarded a combined $178,000 in onetime cash grants to 143 San Diego County women with breast cancer.

The now-$2,000 grants have been awarded to women in active cancer treatment who are facing unexpected financial challenges, often related to the loss of a job or leave of absence from work to focus on their health. In most cases, applicants approved for grants receive a check in as little as 48 hours.

“By the time they reach out to us, they’re already deep in debt so we try to turn around those requests as quickly as possible,” said Holnagel, who serves full time as president of Shades of Pink California.

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Holnagel, an Encinitas resident, said she finds the work rewarding and fulfilling, but she hopes to be forced into early retirement someday.

“I’m grateful we can help people, but I’d love to be out of business,” she said. “It’s hard to see so many women still suffering. One woman dies from breast cancer every day in San Diego.”

Shades of Pink California owes its existence to a favor between friends: Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sisters Farmer and Christina Fulcher. Fulcher was organizing KKG alumni activities at the University of San Diego in 2013 when she invited Farmer to attend a fundraising event she’d planned for the Shades of Pink Foundation in Michigan.

The organization’s goal of raising money for local patients’ immediate needs rather than for cancer research had great appeal to Farmer and Fulcher. In 2013, the philanthropic industry was still reeling from the 2011 Canadian exposé documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” which investigated breast cancer-related charities that spent just a small portion of donations on cancer prevention.

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“We liked the model of Shades of Pink in Michigan, where all the dollars raised went to patients with breast cancer in the community,” said Farmer, an attorney who lives in La Mesa.

Farmer and Fulcher met with officials from the Michigan organization, who supported their plan but encouraged them to create their own independent foundation in California with local oversight. In Fall 2013, they held their first board meeting and in Spring 2014 the hosted their first fundraiser.

The partners’ first two recruits were their own moms. Fulcher’s mother, Sonya, lent her business expertise as the organization’s bookkeeper, and Holnagel came on board after running her own special event planning and social media marketing companies.

Holnagel said she was honored that her daughter asked her to be involved. Farmer had moved away after high school to earn a bachelor’s degree at UC Santa Barbara and then attended law school at USD, so they had naturally drifted apart from seeing each other and speaking regularly.

“Kianne and I were always close when she was growing up but when she went away to school she got her own life and then there was law school,” Holnagel said. “We just weren’t at the same level. When she asked me to be on the board I thought, ‘I’m OK. She really does like me. We’ll work together.’”

In the years since, Farmer has reduced her work with the organization to focus on her law practice and her now-2-year-old daughter, Kennley. Fulcher has taken a leave of absence as she pursues a master’s degree in dance in England, and her mother, Sonya, has also stepped away, though both continue as active supporters. Now Holnagel runs the organization out of her home with a small team of volunteers.

In its early years, Shades of Pink California gave out grants of $500 to approved applicants. Now, as fundraising continues to expand, the individual grants have grown to $2,000. Recipients are only eligible for one grant.

Potential grantees are referred to Shades of Pink by oncology nurses and nurse advocates at local hospital and charitable organizations, including UCSD, Scripps, Sharp and Jewish Family Services of San Diego. Applicants must be in active treatment and must show pay stubs and bills that show a change in financial circumstances as the result of their treatment. Holnagel said 90 percent of applicants use the money to pay rent.

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Holnagel said every client the organization serves is going through hard times but she remembers two especially sad cases involving local moms. One patient was an 84-year-old woman who cared full-time for her disabled 64-year-old son. Another was a 27-year-old woman with stage 4 cancer who lived with her 3-year-old son.

“When she (the 27-year-old) applied for the grant, she was so afraid she would die and leave her son alone. She needed the money to cover basic expenses. That was such a heartbreaking story,” Holnagel said.

While Farmer and Holnagel have been fortunate to not lose a family member to breast cancer, one of Holnagel’s best friends, “Jean,” died from breast cancer in 2012.

“Jean was a girlfriend you can’t replace and I watched the disease take her slowly,” Holnagel said. “She had the funds to pay for good care and help at home when needed, and a loving and caring family, but I soon learned that this was not the case for many others.”

To raise money for grants, Shades of Pink California hosts an annual fundraiser called “Purse Bingo” that’s dedicated in Jean’s honor. The organization has also teamed up with several corporate partners who will donate a portion of their proceeds for the month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. They include Phil’s BBQ, Sushi Lounge, Better Buzz Coffee, Harley-Davidson and Priority Public House restaurant.

As awareness of Shades of Pink California grows, Holnagel said the organization has been able to provide grants to most, if not all, of its qualified applications. Now, Shades of Pink California is working to expand its services to breast cancer patients who may not be able to provide pay slips because they’re self-employed or hourly workers.

“What we want people to know is that our fundraising is going gangbusters and we have money to help people,” she said.

For information on Shades of Pink California, visit shadesofpinkfoundationca.org.

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— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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