The Tulip Treatment
In the fight against breast cancer in Maine, one woman proves that flowers can foster hope - and raise money - one pink tulip at
When Laurie Ellis, band director of Kennebunk Middle School, returned to work last spring after treatment for breast cancer, a ribbon-shaped garden of pink tulips greeted her arrival. The garden symbolized the resolve that had sustained her during surgery and chemotherapy. It also helped fight the disease with which one thousand women in Maine are diagnosed each year.
Planted by the school's one hundred and fifty students the previous October, "Laurie's Garden of Hope and Inspiration" is part of the Pink Tulip Project. [for the rest of this story, see the March 2008 issue of Down East.]The all-volunteer project raises funds for the Women's Cancer Fund of the Maine Cancer Foundation by selling bulbs at cost to participating towns, schools, businesses, community groups, and individuals, who promise to plant them in a prominent place and to raise a minimum of a dollar per bulb. Those who don't wish to do any actual planting may donate to an established garden.
Robin Whitten of Portland created the program in 2005 after her own brush with breast cancer. The project has been spreading across Maine ever since and is on the verge of blooming in other states. Last year the Pink Tulip Project planted seven thousand tulips and raised $21,000. This year Whitten hopes to double those numbers.
"I was diagnosed in December, just after I'd finished planting a thousand tulip bulbs in my garden," Whitten explains. "All through my treatment, I visualized those bulbs in bloom. It gave me such hope. So, I thought that kind of loveliness might also help others. I decided to share the optimism of spring's renewal by creating a project that benefits people affected by breast cancer, and makes our state more beautiful."
Kennebunk Middle School planted seven hundred bulbs and raised almost $1,700. "It was simple," says eighth grader Hannah Rolland. Students brought in their allowances; parents arrived with checks. On planting day, Laurie Ellis, who had just begun chemotherapy, placed the first bulb while her students cheered. When she returned to work in April, she and her students celebrated by performing a special piece entitled "Carpe Diem" - Seize the Day - in front of a wash of pink blossoms.
"Mrs. Ellis is a really great teacher and we all wanted to help honor her. It was so beautiful, so inspiring - " Hannah pauses mid-enthuse. When she resumes, her voice is serious. "Planting the garden was enlightening. Cancer is an unfortunate experience. I'm just glad that there are programs like the Maine Cancer Foundation that can do research and help people return to their normal lives."
The independent nonprofit Maine Cancer Foundation was founded in 1976 to fund cancer research, education, and patient support programs for people in Maine. Its Women's Cancer Fund, established in 2001, supports projects that range from a genetic study of ovarian cancer conducted by the Jackson Laboratory to Franklin Memorial Hospital's support program for economically disenfranchised rural women with breast cancer.
In order to maximize its impact, the Pink Tulip Project encourages participants to plant their gardens in public areas. "The first bed that we planted was in little Trinity Park in Portland," says Robin Whitten. "We chose that spot with Portland Parks and Recreation because it is seen by hundreds of people a day as they drive by on Forest Avenue."
Knowing how painful and confusing a breast cancer diagnosis can be for children when their mothers, aunts, sisters - and teachers - are affected, Whitten tries to get kids involved in the project as much as possible. Last year in Lewiston, after fifth graders from the Governor James B. Longley Elementary School planted tulips faster and more joyfully than any adult could manage, a boy asked, "What's a mammogram?"
"Now, we always ask for questions," says Whitten. "And we encourage the kids to ask their mothers, `Have you had your mammogram yet?' Children are our future and they are a big part of the cure."
Professional women involved in law enforcement, who have dubbed themselves "Ladies in the Law," recently adopted Lincoln Park in front of Portland's courthouses. (They plan to partner with United Way children's programs and the Portland Parks and Recreation Department in order to get the bulbs planted.) Jean Todd, a retired administrative officer for the U.S. Attorney's office, says they are in friendly competition with the U.S. Attorney's office and Federal Court and Probation offices in Bangor. "Our goal is to raise as much money as possible for breast cancer research and, as a by-product, create something beautiful." Todd, who lost a friend to breast cancer, doesn't dither when asked how much is "as much as possible." "A minimum of ten thousand dollars." She adds, "This project is worthy of being exported to every state and around the world."
Mary Rumpho-Kennedy, a University of Maine professor of biochemistry and wife of the university's president, Robert A. Kennedy, carried the project to the university's Orono campus in 2006. "It ties together new life emerging in the spring out of the cold and snow of Maine with inspiring hope for those battling cancer," she says. "And it's a reminder that we still need to raise money to find better diagnoses, treatments, and cures."
Students donated generously, yet she and undergraduate leader Michelle Morneault wondered how they would actually get a thousand bulbs into the ground. They were delighted when fifty people showed up in front of Folger Library to help. "However, we only had about ten trowels and spades! So, students used their hands, sticks, pens, and pencils."
The flowers bloomed beautifully during graduation week - a result they plan to duplicate this year.
- By: Aurelia C. Scott