Teen Organizes Annual Walk to Fight Breast Cancer

A teenager brings a community together to help breast cancer patients in Chelsea.

Grace Elmer, 18, learned when a community comes together to fundraise, so much more is possible. In 2015, when Grace was 14, she took over the Breast Friends Walk, an annual event in Marblehead, Massachusetts, to help raise money for breast cancer patients at the MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center, which is part of Massachusetts General Hospital. The health center provides high-quality adult primary care, imaging and specialty services to patients who live in Chelsea and neighboring communities.

First Memories of Fundraising

Grace first participated in the Breast Friends walk in 2009 when she was in first grade. Her mother, Kara Elmer, then 38, had just undergone chemotherapy. “When my mom went through breast cancer, I didn’t understand a lot about it,” she recalls. “But it was clear that my parents were scared.”

“The walk made a huge difference for my mom the year she was sick.”

More often, Grace remembered the joyful day when her family and mother’s friends participated in the Breast Friends Walk. Grace wore a pink T-shirt that read: I walk for my mom.

Kara, got better, and she and her husband, Bob Elmer, and son, Luke, and Grace continued to raise money and participate yearly in the Breast Friends Walk. As she got older, Grace and her friends made bracelets and cupcakes to sell on event day and donated the proceeds.

When Grace learned that the walk was ending after 10 years, she asked her parents if their family could organize it.

“I just knew I didn’t want it to end. The walk had made a huge difference for my mom the year she was sick. Our family felt happy and hopeful, and I wanted people in my community who were fighting breast cancer to have the same opportunity to feel the support that my mom did,” she says.

Inspired to Raise Funds for Breast Cancer

Grace Elmer and her father, Bob Elmer, at a 2018 Breast Friends Walk, while Grace addresses participants.
Grace Elmer, with her father, Bob Elmer, as she speaks to participants at the 2018 Breast Friends Walk.

There was a learning curve figuring out the logistics, especially for an eighth grader, Grace says. The first year she didn’t have everything in place, but still managed to raise $2,500.

Then, she received a grant from SPUR, a local nonprofit that helps young people take their ideas and create lasting projects. She obtained event insurance and licenses and marketed the walk around town. In 2018, the event reached its all-time high: $17,000.

That year, her aunt, Beth Lucien, of Melrose, was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Beth was too sick to attend with her family and friends, but she connected with Grace, who was at the event, through FaceTime. A few months after the walk, after her battle with breast cancer, Beth died.

Marblehead Community Connections

“The more people I involved, the bigger the walk became and the more money we raised together.”

Each year, about 200 people participate in the October walk, a three-mile loop around Marblehead Neck. Since Marblehead is a tight-knit community, Grace knew families affected by breast cancer and invited them to create teams and join the walk. Friends whose mothers or loved ones had the disease became reliable helpers. And local businesses responded with donations when contacted by Grace and her friends.

Mass General’s BeCause program, a fundraising support tool, helped Grace and her volunteers easily share the event’s details on social media and obtain online donations.

Through the years, Grace and other volunteers have visited the MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center to present their donation and learn about the care provided to breast cancer patients. MGH Chelsea also sends a team to participate in the Breast Friends Walk.

Improving Access to Cancer Care

Sarah Abernethy Oo, MsW, director of Community Health Improvement at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center, says the center appreciates Grace and her community’s efforts to help families in need.

Sarah Oo, MSW
Sarah Oo, MSW

“Grace inspires us with her commitment and dedication,” says Ms. Oo. “The Breast Friends walk funds support cancer navigation work at MGH Chelsea. Our community health workers help patients resolve their barriers to care, such as transportation, childcare, scheduling appointments and language barriers so they can complete critical breast cancer screenings that help detect cancer early and save lives.”

Looking back, Grace realizes the event became less about what she accomplished and more about what her community had done together.

“I learned it was OK to ask for as much help as I needed because the more people I got involved, the bigger the walk became and the more money we raised together,” Grace says.

In 2020, Grace and her family participated virtually and Grace said she visited the site where some people were walking in a social distancing way. Next year, Grace plans to attend college, but she hopes family or community members will keep the walk going.

To support the Breast Friends Walk, please visit Grace’s BeCause fundraising page.