Community members, volunteers and San Quentin inmates joined forces the first weekend in October to fight breast cancer at the 10th Annual “Walk for a Cure.” The two-day event featured live music, personal messages, poetry and prayer to entertain and inspire about 100 participants.
The inmate-run program San Quentin CARES (Compassionate Accountability Responsibly Expressed through community Service) organized the “Walk for a Cure.”
SQ CARES is a committee of a dozen inmates and four community volunteers.
Prisoner Rafael “Nephew” Bankston walked for his mother Michelle. She was approved to visit him and see him get his GED, but passed away from cancer the day be- fore his graduation. Bankston expressed the loss he felt in poetry he read to the gath- ered participants, “If home is where the heart is, then I’m homeless.”
Another inmate, Hieu “Rocky” Nguyen has participated in the walk since 2012. He has served on the SQ CARES committee for two years. His sister passed away from cancer 12 years — to the day — before this walk. He walks to support the community, create awareness and remember and honor his sister. He remembers how she held his hand and taught him to read and write in a concentration camp in Vietnam, where there was no school.
Charlie Thao began working with SQ CARES this year. In 2016, he found out that the victim of his crime suffered from cancer. “It felt like a stab in my heart,” Thao said. He stipulated (postponed) his parole board hearing for five years so that she would not have to endure the additional hardship it would cause her. “I want to give back to my community,” Thao said.
Stephen Pascascio is the only one of the 10 founding committee member inmates that hasn’t gone home yet. He cut his 171⁄2-inch-long hair — six years’ worth — on stage during the event Saturday to symbolically support a program that provides wigs for cancer patients.
Women and men — incarcerated and free, wearing pink wristbands and pink ribbons — walked and talked together on San Quentin State Prison’s Lower Yard. Pink T-shirts mingled with blue state prisoner shirts in a unified community event to improve the quality of life for women with cancer.
Volunteer Tammy Crane walked for her sister, whose cancer has been in remission for six years. “This will not be the end of me,” Tammy shared with the crowd, reading her poem relating her sister’s difficult decisions dealing with her breast cancer. “I’m here six years later… with flowing sister locks, flawless skin and fully reconstructed,” she read to the crowd.
Each day of the Walk for a Cure, the participants began with “a lap of silence to remember those that we have lost to breast cancer, to stand in solidarity with those who are currently fighting, and to pay homage to the survivors,” as announced by the emcee Edmond Richardson. Richardson walked in the event for the first time this year. He walked to give back to a community that he took so much from and to “do something bigger than myself.”
Community volunteer Kim Bailey co-founded SQ CARES 10 years ago. She highlighted the importance of establishing connections between prisoners and the outside community. Bailey sees the volunteers that walk with the inmates leave with a different, more positive perception: “It gets them to see that people in here are just like them.” Bailey also walks in remembrance of her sister who died at age 45 after undergoing treatments for breast cancer.
Regarding the money raised by SQ’s “Walk for a Cure,” the other co-founder, Chris Bailey, husband of Kim Bailey, said that there are bigger donors, but the way this money is raised — community building — really makes a difference: “The little dollars can make a bigger difference.” Most inmate participants donate $5 for the cause — some making as little as eight cents an hour.
Bailey asks, “What if everybody gave a week’s pay to the cause?”
Community volunteer Shannon Gordhamer was working in San Quentin at Center Force when she was invited to join the SQ CARES committee four years ago. Gordhamer enjoys volunteer- ing with SQ CARES because it keeps her connected with the people inside even though she doesn’t work in the prison anymore. “Community building is extremely important,” she said. She also volunteers to support improving the quality of life for women with cancer, a cause that is very important to her personally.
Gordhamer also worked for Avon, a previous beneficiary of funds raised by the Walk. She recruited and trained men and women preparing for their 39-mile walks. Gordhamer has also done that walk on the outside, but she says that the walk at San Quentin is “at the top of my list.”
“This is my very favorite event that I have done,” she said. Why? “Amazing work is being done here,” Gordhamer said.
When people come in to the prison to walk, they are inspired by the heart and commitment of the incarcerated participants. She says the soul overflows to bursting and, “you get more than you give.”
The newest community volunteer committee member is Samantha Feld. She worked for the San Francisco AVON walk to end breast cancer for years and recalls hearing of the prison program from Gordhamer. Very intrigued, Feld decided to visit San Quentin a few years ago, for the ceremonial presentation of the SQ CARES check to the AVON walk. “I was so struck by the stories that I was hearing,” she said.
Impressed by the work of the men on the SQ CARES committee, Feld was inspired to join the prison walk team herself. This is her second year walking with the San Quentin inmates and is now an official committee member. “Miss Sami,” as she is now called by them, recognizes that cancer affects everyone – across walls, borders, and communities. She said, “I’m very proud and honored to be working with the committee. It’s a very inspiring group.”
Over its 10 years, the event has raised more than $45,000. That is “amazing!” said Penny, the chair of the board of directors of the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC) in the East Bay. The event raised about $4,000 this year to support the center’s mission of improving the quality of life for women with cancer. The WCRC provides 100 percent free services.
“There are thousands of people in the Bay Area who support the center. Every event is special, but there is something about this one,” Penny said. “We can only do this work because of you.”
Bailey has seen Walk for a Cure raise a lot of money over the last 10 years.
“Our primary mission is to create a community-building social event,” Bailey said. By walking together with a common cause, he explains, “We connect with each other and our humanity.”
—Marcus Henderson contributed to this story
The reporter also walked to honor his sister, who suddenly became very sick with cancer this year. “My sister Doreen has always been there for me, and always will be,” he said. She has decided to discontinue her cancer treatment. “I walk thinking of her beauty and love, and praying for her comfort and health.”