A sea of pink flooded the San Quentin Lower Yard as more than 100 prisoners and dozens of volunteers enjoyed a sunny fall weekend to support the fight against cancer. They joined to build, serve and inspire their SQ community in the 11th annual “Walk for a Cure.”
“We begin with a lap of silence to remember those we have lost to cancer and show support for survivors and those currently in the fight,” the public address speaker announced as the walk began shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 12.
Participants wore pink ribbons and “SQ CARES” wristbands as they enjoyed live entertainment and inspirational testimonies. Many shared their personal stories while walking together during the two-day event.
“I love being in here,” said Kevin Eshleman, a restaurant manager in the North Bay. He also volunteers with another group inside San Quentin. “These are genuinely good people,” he said while walking with a couple of inmates.
Willie Burrell said he was walking because he enjoys doing something positive. He said he is serving three years “this time” and has been learning skills during his three months at San Quentin.
“I feel so privileged to be here,” said Amanda Nixon, visiting prison for her first time. She works with breast cancer patients and is a 13-year survivor of breast cancer herself. “I began crying during the first lap, remembering those who have passed from cancer.”
Nixon said she has done other cancer walks and learned about this event through her connection with the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC) in Oakland.
The WCRC receives all the proceeds from the “Walk for a Cure” this year—about $7,000. Over its 11 years, the San Quentin event has raised over $50,000 toward the fight against cancer. Inmates, volunteers and outside sponsors donate to the cause each year.
“It is a huge honor to once again be the recipient of your contributions,” said Penni Hudis, WCRC executive director and chairperson of the Board of Directors. Addressing the crowd, she commented, “Thanks to people like you—our donors, who make all this possible … we make life a quality life for women with cancer.”
“About 70% of the people we serve are low-income,” said Hudis. She described some of the services the center provides as a lifeline for cancer patients, including an information and referral hotline and emergency financial assistance. “Thanks to Warden Ron Davis, all staff, volunteers and the internal committee.”
“You are truly making a difference in people’s lives,” said Christine Sinnott. She is the development manager for WCRC. Sinnott read letters from cancer patients whom WCRC helps, expressing how they are inspired by the donations and the stories of heartfelt community service by the incarcerated people in San Quentin. “I think these clients’ letters say it all. From the bottom of our hearts at WCRC, thank you,” said Sinnott.
“I’m so grateful to San Quentin CARES and the dedication of the committee volunteers and inmates,” Sinnott added. She said the donations of $5 each from the inmates are so meaningful because they equal about one week’s income.
San Quentin CARES (Compassionate Accountability Responsibly Expressed through community Service) has organized the “Walk for a Cure” since its beginning in 2008. It is an inmate-run program headed by a committee of a dozen inmates and four community volunteers.
“This is a great opportunity to build community,” said Hieu Thai, who joined the committee this year. Incarcerated since 2005, he will be eligible for parole consideration in about 10 more years. “Volunteers who come in begin to understand us and see that we are able to serve our communities.”
TienPhamisanothernew committee member who sees the value of community ser- vice. He said he is following in the footsteps of outgo- ing member Son “Sonny” Nguyen. They met in prison 14 years ago.
“He’s a good role model to follow. I’ve seen the change in him. Now I want to be of service,” said Pham. “My hopelessness has been con- verted to a sense of purpose. Today is the highlight—seeing my contribution.” Nguyen was on the SQ CARES committee for about three years and was recently found suitable for parole.
“I’m really proud to be part of this,” said inmate John Levin, who also joined the committee this year.
Pink-clad volunteers mingled with the men in blue, circling the quarter-mile track.
“This walk was started by inmates and keeps going because of the amazing things they do to keep this community alive,” said Kim Bailey, a community volunteer who co-founded SQ CARES 11 years ago. “Thanks to all of you for your contributions and for sharing your stories.”
“When you think of prison, you don’t think of this,” said B. Rousse, a philosophy writer who was in San Quentin for his first time. “The people I’m meeting today are hugely inspirational—full of resilience, good humor, friendliness, strength of spirit and a sense of community.”
Rousse facilitated getting a San Quentin inmate art show hosted by Cords Gallery in Oakland. The show is another annual event sponsored by SQ CARES.
“The entire gallery is dedicated to the show with dozens of pieces—drawings and paintings—during the First Friday street fair,” said Alicia Maria, who also came in to the prison for the first time for this year’s “Walk for a Cure.” She is an artist and art teacher who also helped facilitate the art show space and has held shows there for her high school students.
Maria’s student artists attend their shows. “People really want to make the connection between the art and the artists. During the San Quentin shows, the artists are missing. That’s what brought us to this event here— to make that connection.”
“It’s frustrating to me how much you are forgotten by so many people,” said Rachel Bailey, a volunteer with SQ CARES, helping pass out the ribbons and wristbands. She has been coming into San Quentin for about 11 years. “But we want you to know that people outside care about you,” said Bailey.
“They show us that people care about us and that we are a part of their community too,” said incarcerated artist Chanthon Bun. He has donated art to the art shows and designed the pink T-shirts for this year’s walk.
“This is a community- building event where the unique San Quentin inside community inspires people outside to invest in them- selves, improve, and redefine themselves,” said SQ CARES co-founder Chris Bailey. He said that all prison staff and volunteers from all programs and groups are encouraged to sign up online and participate.
This is the second year the SQ CARES “Walk for a Cure” was in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.