Abby’s Journey: Tying the Ribbons Together
“I visit CSC because of the level of comfort I find here—a true reminder why I fundraise for cancer support programs and why this fills part of my heart.” ~ Abby Silfies
“When I realized that I would not be staying with the American Cancer Society, I was heartbroken,” says Abby Silfies, sitting upright on the couch in her simple black sleeveless dress. “But then I realized that my passion—being involved with cancer—didn’t have to be my career.”
For 12 years as a volunteer and then four years as the ACS’s Senior Manager for Fundraising Development in the Lehigh Valley and surrounding counties, Abby recruited volunteers and ran fundraising events. But, finally, it was time to write a new chapter in her life, and two months after leaving ACS, she became executive director of the American Heart Association in the Lehigh Valley & Northwest, PA, a job she started last March.
As importantly, it also didn’t take long to get back into cancer. She paired up with her friend, Susan Mattes Bostian, who had been doing fundraising events for cancer-related non-profits for years, and had established a non-profit corporation with tax-exempt status to house her events. It was a perfect match: Abby’s creativity and Susan’s practicality. Two women who understood how to develop and run successful fundraising events, and who had a great commitment to cancer.
Abby pauses. “We wanted to create an organization that raised money for all kinds of cancer. We couldn’t come up with a name, even though I kept repeating what I wanted this organization to do: ‘One fight for all cancer, where every ribbon color counts.’ Susan’s son, who was in the room as we kept trying out different names, suddenly said, ‘You named it 10 minutes ago.’”
Thus was born The Every Ribbon Counts Foundation in early 2019 to raise funds for education, awareness, and support for organizations focused on people with all types of cancer.
The foundation’s logo included a row of colorful gladioli, symbolizing strength and integrity. “It was sooo exciting,” Abby exclaims, her voice rising. “I had a ton of community support when I left ACS, so we could easily build a volunteer leadership board of 21 people from all parts of the community–people with radio, TV, business, and health networks, people who aligned with our mission and were equally excited to have a new platform.” One of the people was Amanda Buss, executive director of the Cancer Support Community.
Every Ribbon Counts hosts fundraising events geared to discrete age and interest groups: Derby Dash Pub Crawl, Bling Your Bra Auction, Pedal for a Purpose, Disc Golf, Health and Wellness Education Expo, Wine and Dine Half-Marathon Weekend, and the Dragon Boat Festival with the Cancer Support Community.
Abby continues, “Right now, we’re trying to bring the Young Survivors Coalition, for young adults who face breast cancer, to the Valley. We need to raise funds to purchase journals and materials for participants.”
Abby knew cancer: her dear childhood friend, L.J., had died of brain cancer at 24. “When I watched L.J. go through her battle, I was taken aback. I had always thought cancer was a grandparent’s disease. Even though I went through this experience with L.J.—when she got a wig, when she filed for a medical marijuana card—it’s still a big grey spot in my memory. It was all so surreal.” The thin gold bracelets on Abby’s arm slip toward her elbow.
“One of the first events I did for the American Cancer Society was giving out information at a health fair. I was sitting with Jen Sinclair, CSC’s program director, talking about the resources that would have benefited L.J. I told her that no matter where I worked, I would advocate for CSC and tell people about the comfort it provided. I just want people to know there is a community for them. I don’t think we knew that when L.J. was diagnosed.”
Abby drew even closer to the Cancer Support Community when the American Cancer Society funded the wigs for CSC’s Wig Salon. “I’d come here because it’s such a happy place. I’d spend time in the wig room before it was redesigned, or attend different events, or just hang out with the beautiful people who had become family.” She tosses her shoulder-length black hair.
“I visit CSC because of the level of comfort I find here–from this couch, to the staff’s welcoming smiles, to my personal fave–the casual conversations and hugs from patients and friends. That comfort is a true reminder why I fundraise for cancer support programs and why this fills part of my heart.
“When we started Every Ribbon Counts, we wrote the Cancer Support Community into the bylaws to ensure that we’d work with it. At the same time,” Abby smiles, “we don’t want to raise money solely for CSC, because there are other voids, too.”
Abby Silfies grew up and lived in Michigan, studied hospitality management and marketing in college, and worked at Perkins Restaurant for 11 years, while raising five daughters, now 10 through 21. “I don’t miss the restaurant business because the hours are long and the days are grueling, and I was raising a family. But I learned how lead, how to pivot, and move on.”
She pauses. “We moved to the Lehigh Valley for our jobs. But then, I stopped working to raise my children, and when I returned to work, I went to the American Cancer Society because I wanted to give back to one of the programs that had helped my L.J. and eventually helped us as we grieved and needed a way to honor her.
“I wanted my daughters not to be as naïve about cancer as I was.” She leans against the couch back. “I wanted them to know what it can do and that it can affect their friends. I also want to make a difference so that they can watch their friends survive this awful disease.” Abby crosses her feet, clad in black espadrilles. A small tattoo below the ankle strap marks the top of her foot.
“I want them to be philanthropic. And I think I instilled that in them. My oldest daughter who’s in college is team captain for Grand Valley State University’s Relay for Life and the philanthropy chair of her sorority. My second oldest is vice president of West Chester University’s Colleges against Cancer Club. My high school-age daughters participate in community volunteerism and are leaders within their school.
“My 10-year-old who had been volunteering since her days in the womb cried when I was leaving ACS because we participated in Relay for Life every year, and she was afraid we wouldn’t do it again,” she laughs. “But I told her, ‘There are lots of fundraising events for our family to become involved with.’
“The possibilities are endless, and the surface barely scratched when it comes to ways we can impact the cancer community in the valley. Every Ribbon Counts will make sure we always have a way to do that,” says Abby.
Abby fields a team for the Dragon Boat Race; is on the Garden of Hope event committee; attends the CSC summits; and volunteers at Boutique at the Rink.