by Bekah Porter

CEDAR RAPIDS – Sandy Knight never planned on building a team of thousands.

But as a breast cancer patient, she found herself part of a larger group that desperately desired to join forces to accomplish a common goal.

In 1989, the Fairfax resident faced her diagnosis with a determination to make a difference. During her brief remission, she helped form the Especially For You After Cancer Support Group, and throughout her final days, she envisioned creating a fundraiser that would help other women avoid her fate.

“Her dream remains a reality,” said her sister, Cindy Young. “I don’t know how many people can say that.”

Ms. Young credits one particular strategy for her sister’s long-standing legacy of success.

“It’s all about the team that’s been built,” she said. “It’s a team effort, all the way; there’s no doubt about that.”

This month, 20 years after Ms. Knight succumbed to breast cancer, more than 15,000 people gathered to put one foot in front of the other at the Especially For You Race Against Breast Cancer.

Money generated from race registrations and donor contributions topped $377,000, and corporate sponsors chipped in nearly $90,000.

 “I think (Ms. Knight) would be in awe of what has been accomplished,” Ms. Young said. “It’s her legacy, and I think she had no idea how big it would become. Until you’re there, until you’re in that race, standing in a sea of pink, you don’t realize just how different (this team) experience is. There’s something in the air. It’s an emotional, intense experience.”

And while company executives and business coaches can spend countless hours and dollars on workshops and seminars to motivate team building in their employees, absolutely nothing compares to having a common passion, Ms. Young said.

“Yes, this race has dollar investments and time investments and meetings and marketing packets and planning sessions and all of that,” she said. “But at the end of the day, what makes (our team) so successful is that we have a common goal, and it’s an intensely personal goal. It’s a passion, and that makes us want to succeed more than anything.”

Rebecca Jacobs, the senior director for Health and Wellness Services for Mercy Medical Center, started her stint as one of the event’s organizers eight years ago. The hospital is one of the leading partners for the race, along with General Mills, where Ms. Knight worked for 18 years. She now serves as the chairperson for the race’s steering committee.

“Everybody involved knows somebody who has been diagnosed (with breast cancer). The passion for this event, the emotion behind it – it’s up there,” she said. “That’s what drives a huge portion of the relationship between (the volunteers, workers and event.)”

Ms. Jacobs understands this relationship better than others. This past year, after helping to organize the event for nearly a decade, doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer. For the first time, her family formed a team and walked the race in her honor.

“It was definitely something I was never planning on seeing – my family creating a team because of me,” she said. “It only serves to better bring home our purpose.”

The money raised by the event pays for mammograms, MRIs, ultrasounds and other imaging services for under- or uninsured women. Funds go to women who seek help from Mercy Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital or the mobile mammography unit.

With this mission in mind, Ms. Jacobs spends numerous hours throughout the year steering her team toward an improved event the next year.

“Part of our success as a team is that everybody knows their role,” she said.

For example, General Mills passes out goodie bags to the participants. With more than 15,000 bags to be prepared, volunteers play a heavy role.
Candace McKeever, logistics manager at the General Mills’ Cedar Rapids plant, oversees the process.

“Honestly, even though this is a volunteer thing, we employ a lot of the same (team building) strategies that we do here at General Mills,” she said.

Particularly, they focus on one General Mills acronym, PBED, which stands for prepare, brief, execute and debrief.

“First, we have very organized meetings, which we prepare for by having an agenda and a task list,” she said. “We prepare for the meeting by defining what our goals are and listing out all the things that must happen for this event to be successful. Then, we brief. Once we have all of our tasks and responsibilities defined, we review it with the entire team to let them know what their roles are in this process. Then we execute the plan, which is pretty self explanatory. And finally, we debrief. So, that’s us going back and looking at what we did well, and if something didn’t go well, then we explore why and then build a plan around how we can make that go more smoothly the next year.”

Ms. McKeever said that the team surrounding the race succeeds in large part because of the overarching theme of passion, but that logistically, many things are accomplished because of clear leadership and defined roles.

“We have a great leader in (Rebecca Jacobs),” Ms. McKeever said. “We each have our own roles, and we know what’s expected of us. Everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing, and if questions arise, we’re comfortable asking. This makes the environment of the whole team work well. Everybody is cordial and welcoming, and everybody works to make sure that everybody else feels like they are a part of this team.”

With these main strategies – promotion of the event’s clear passion, clearly defining roles, setting up solid leadership and creating a welcoming environment – the team has collectively driven the event to soaring rates of success.

When Cindy Young first help set up the race 20 years ago, she rejoiced in having 1,078 participants and raising $14,500.

Now, she remains over-joyed that her sister’s dream has grown to include more than 15,000 participants and inch its way up to the $400,000 mark.

“We started with lofty goals, but we exceeded even those,” she said. “It’s something (Sandy Knight) would be so proud of. I just know she would.”