Komen Race for the Cure Volunteers Take Things Personally

“Vanessa’s Angels” are the words printed across the backs of their shirts as they set off in a sea of pink. Although they are sweaty, tired and thirsty, the reason for their passion is written all over their faces and shirts. “Once you look down and see that face [on your shirt], you just got to keep going,” said Ah’Toya Horton, a Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure volunteer. Ah’Toya and her daughter Sydney Brown have been volunteering with the Komen Foundation for only a year, but their passion for the cause is apparent.

Ah’Toya is a single mom and a committed advocate for breast cancer prevention. Like her mother, Sydney is also a volunteer, and attends Carver Middle School. She’ll be in the 7th grade and has plans to become a Booker T. Hornet, and then attend Spellman College.

Ah’Toya and Sydney have attended Covenant Family Church since Sydney was four. It was there that they met their inspiration for volunteering, Pastor Vanessa D. Mitchell. Vanessa was Ah’Toya’s assistant pastor and is her reason for participating in the Race for the Cure. Vanessa died from breast cancer in 2009. In addition to losing Vanessa, Ah’Toya lost a dear friend, Shelita Thomas, to breast cancer in 2010. Shelita’s death was sudden, and she left three children behind. Vanessa and Shelita were both African-American.

While Caucasian women are more likely to get breast cancer than women of any other racial or ethnic group, African-American women are more likely to die from breast cancer than white women, according to the Susan G. Komen website.

Ah’Toya said that she was devastated by Vanessa’s death because, in many ways, Vanessa was like a mother to her. Vanessa would often tell her own daughter, Andrea Murrell, to look out for Ah’Toya because she loved them both so dearly. Before her death, Vanessa had encouraged Andrea to plan a Pink Sunday, educating women and men about breast cancer.

“We brought in a lady to talk about breast cancer, ate pink cupcakes, wore pink clothes, and decorated the church with pink,” Ah’Toya said, all in honor of her assistant pastor. “I got in front of our church congregation and asked if there were any breast cancer survivors or anybody afflicted with it. We had breast cancer survivors attending our church and did not even know it.”

Ah’Toya describes Vanessa as a “loving person who loved to give hugs. She would be at her car and have people lined up from her car in the parking lot to the church door, just waiting to give her a hug,” Ah’Toya said. “To see her go through [her suffering] with such pride and dignity and to also see her on the front row praising the Lord was awesome. She went through it like a trooper.”

“The last thing she told me was that she loved me,” Sydney said.

Soon after Vanessa’s death, Ah’Toya and Sydney became volunteers and ran their first Komen race, which was a touching experience for them. “To see all those people in a sea of pink is so neat,” Ah’Toya said.

Syndey was also excited about her first race and said when she crossed the finish line, “it felt like [she] accomplished something.” She went on to say that “if you’re dedicated, then do it!”

Ah’Toya and Sydney say that volunteering is not only gratifying, but it has also brought them closer together. “In this day and age, you have to be close with your children,” Ah’Toya said. “There shouldn’t be any secrets between us.”

Ah’Toya jokes that she and Sydney are opposites. “Sydney loves to share, and one thing about me is that I didn’t,” she said. “I was the only child, so it was hard for me to share.”

Ah’Toya says it’s no longer hard for her to share and, in many ways, volunteering is like sharing. “It’s rewarding when you help people. You can deal with 10 jerks, but it’s that one person that keeps you going.” That one person for Ah’Toya was a patient who gave her a card one day thanking her for all of her help. She says that’s what makes her job worthwhile and rewarding. “[Volunteering] also pulls me out of my box, and it brings different people together for one common cause.”

In addition to desire, training is vital to becoming a volunteer. Ah’Toya said that she and Sydney attend training a couple of hours a month.

Their training includes videos about breast cancer, and personal stories from women afflicted with the disease. It also highlights the importance of knowing the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, and of getting regular screenings. “There’s no reason why any woman shouldn’t seek treatment or information,” Ah’Toya said. “You’re at an even higher risk if someone in the family is diagnosed [with breast cancer].”

Ah’Toya is also passionate about educating African American women because of the lack of knowledge and the death rate in her community. She encourages all women to have mammograms and to follow a healthy lifestyle.

“Being active can put you on top of your health,” Ah’Toya said. “The information I learned [besides the Komen training] came from websites related to breast cancer, and there’s a lot of literature you can read as well.”

Although Ah’Toya is not a breast cancer survivor, there was a time when she thought that her own life was at risk. “I went to the doctor and they found two lumps,” she said. “I was nervous, and I told myself that if I pray about it, then I can’t go wrong.”

She said that through it all, she “couldn’t help but praise God because as time went on the doctors came back and said, ‘We don’t know what happened but [those lumps] are not there’,” she said. “I know my faith, and I stand strong in it.”

Like many volunteers, Ah’Toya and Sydney have dedicated a part of their lives to fighting breast cancer. Advocating for putting an end to the disease that took their friends has brought them closer, and Ah’Toya and Sydney hope they have made Vanessa proud. For that reason, they call themselves “Vanessa’s Angels.”

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