CAMBRIDGE — The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of the Eastern Shore hosted its seventh annual Man & Woman of the Year Grand Finale Gala, breaking fundraising records and bringing the community together for a common cause.
This year, the campaign broke its “Fund the Fight” record, collecting nearly $100,000 in just minutes. “Fund the Fight” is a lightning round of fundraising during which everyone in the room frantically donates as much money as they can in a short amount of time.
The final tally for the gala, held Saturday, June 8, at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort in Cambridge, was $359,434.
A large portion of those funds came from the 2019 Man & Woman of the Year, Joe Bunce and Kennedy Thomason, who brought in more than $125,000 collectively.
Every year, the community nominates male and female candidates, who spend 10 weeks intensively raising funds for LLS blood cancer research efforts. The candidates who raise the most funds become the next Man or Woman of the Year.
Thirteen candidates were backed by a team of family and friends who help them host fundraising events leading up to the main event: the Gala.
This year’s male winner, Bunce, from team Crushin’ Orange, addressed the crowd after his win, saying it’s “just moving to see that we’re making a difference.”
This is the fifth consecutive win for Bunce’s Crushin’ Orange team, which Bunce said has raised more than half a million dollars during the past five years.
“It’s not just about the money,” he said. “It’s helped bring our family closer together and helped us get through losing our mom to cancer. It’s been a huge thing for us.”
The female winner, Thomason, who recently graduated from North Caroline High School, also won the Angela M. Bullock Award for her “immense compassion” toward the fundraising mission.
The Angela M. Bullock Award, in honor and memory of an Eastern Shore woman who lost her battle with cancer, is given each year to one “very special” candidate who personifies the mission and exemplifies Angela’s will to fight.
Through tears, Thomason said she was “so grateful” for her family’s support and commented on the strength of all the survivors in the room.
“You are so strong, and I am inspired by you all every day,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride these past 10 weeks, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
This year’s runners up for Man & Woman of the Year, B.J. Wheatley of team Brewing Up a Cure and Rachel Hines of team Capel Strong 2.0, raised a collective $96,179.
In addition to Bunce, Thomason, Wheatley and Hines, Trish Bucci represented fifth generation Team It’s A Cure Thing, Faith Mills represented first generation group Team Against All Odds, Jennifer Walczak represented Team Johns Flock, Amanda Kettering represented Team Invisible Rockstars and Carrie O’Connell represented Team O+ Crew. Kat Crowell Gunby, Robert Chandler, Jeremiah Burns and Eric Clough also joined the campaign as contestants.
Of the night’s many highlights, one moment that resonated with guests and organizers alike was the story of cancer survivor Jack Wheatley, who spoke during the event.
Wheatley said he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia after a routine physical at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where he studied and played baseball.
He said joining the Coast Guard was the best decision he ever made. But shortly after he joined, he thought his life was ending.
“I remember going mute for a long period of time,” he said. “Silently processing the fact that my life would now be changed forever, the life I fought so hard to create.”
Wheatley recounted spending five months at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore receiving treatment that changed the way he looked and felt.
“Months of not eating, losing weight, feeling nauseous and throwing up took an enormous toll on my body,” he said. “Yet I persisted nonetheless.”
But he admitted, looking back at his battle, he had the “easy part.”
“My doctors and the nurse team at Johns Hopkins were, as Kevin Durant would put it, ‘the real MVPs,’” he said. “With their expertise and outstanding care and with the horrifying yet incredibly powerful medication of chemotherapy, I was given a chance I thought would never happen again, a chance to live my life again.”
Now, more than two years after his diagnosis, Wheatley said his cancer remains in remission and he has started studying at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
He said despite his progress and successes, his life “continues to be haunted by the threat of my worst enemy returning.”
“There’s not a single day that goes by without the thought of my cancer returning,” he said, before offering his gratitude to everyone in the room. “Thank you for fighting for a future that will hopefully exist without the threat of Leukemia and Lymphoma.”
A Boy and Girl of the Year also are chosen each year to represent the campaign. The 2019 Girl of the Year was Brianna Merritt and the Boy of the Year was Nicholas Sipes. Nicholas was diagnosed with poorly-differentiated chordoma cancer last summer. Merritt was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on Nov. 11, 2016.
In 2018, the Eastern Shore LLS provided more than $800,000 to patients in Maryland for expenses such as travel and co-pays.
Since the campaign started in 2012, it has helped to raise more than $2.1 million for blood cancer research, patient support and advocacy.
The mission of the LLS is focused on eradicating blood cancers. But much of the research funded by the foundation benefits those affected by other varieties of cancer, as well.
The Eastern Shore campaign continues to fight for a cure, with the “exceptional generosity” and “unwavering support” of its sponsors, candidates and donors.