Verona’s Secret Weapon Against Cancer

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Avon’s loss is Verona’s gain.

Almost four years ago, a group of cancer patients created a new kind of support group. They called themselves Women Inspiring, Nurturing, Giving Strength & Support–WINGS for short–and their goal was to sponsor events on healing arts that would alleviate the stress that cancer patients feel before, during and after treatment. And knowing the financial devastation that can also come with a cancer diagnosis, they wanted the support group to be absolutely free of charge. Verona residents Diane Braschi and Holly Denton, and Verona art teacher Joni Jasterzbski had plenty of ideas for speakers and programs, but what they didn’t have was plenty of money.

“We didn’t have any money at all,” says Jasterzbski, who has been “Mrs. J” to legions of students at F.N. Brown and Brookdale elementary schools. “So we’d put in our own money or we’d get speakers to donate their time because many were cancer survivors, too.”

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Meanwhile, another Verona cancer survivor was taking a different approach to fighting the disease. Maureen Milmoe was using her businesses to raise big money for Avon’s breast cancer walk through golf outings put together by her Clifton and Boonton sports bars, both called Sharky’s. “Ironically, we are known for our wings,” says Milmoe of her restaurants.

The irony wasn’t lost on Jasterzbski, a six-year breast cancer survivor, who had had Milmoe’s children among her students. Mrs. J had been encouraging Milmoe, a 15-year breast cancer survivor, to come to a WINGS meeting for support from its creation. Milmoe finally did three years ago, and loved it: “I saw that there were people locally that they were helping,” she says of WINGS. And before anyone knew it, the money that Milmoe was raising for Avon became fundraising for WINGS programs instead. That was $10,000 in 2012, $13,000 in 2013 and, this past October, a powerful $15,000.

One of the rare photos of the low-profile WINGS fundraiser: That's Maureen Milmoe in the back row, third from right, at the October golf outing.
A rare photo of the low-profile WINGS fundraiser: That’s Maureen Milmoe in the back row, third from right, at the October golf outing.

“This amazing woman does all this work every year,” says Jasterzbski. “She’s amazing.”

What’s also amazing is the work that WINGS has done with Milmoe’s support. Last week, it filled the upstairs room at the Verona Community Center for a presentation by Chef Sally Owens on healthy cooking. Nearly 30 women came–free of charge–to learn about, and taste, vegan recipes developed to help with the healing process. For more than two hours, they were able to put aside their stress to savor dishes like a pumpkin-coconut smoothie and a kale and collard puree that packed the power of turmeric, a spice known to fight the inflammation that is thought to be a factor in cancer. And when their forks were down, the women got to let down their guard as well and talk about the successes and setbacks in their treatments. They got to say things that many were hesitant to tell their families and co-workers, and get support from women who had definitely been there.

WINGS organizers estimate that between 150 and 200 women have participated in the group since its inception. They’ve gotten to experience Reiki and Qi Gong, meditation and relation, and they are looking forward to a full calendar of events in the months ahead (see WINGS web site for details). Some of Milmoe’s fundraising has also made it possible for WINGS participants to spend a weekend at Mary’s Place By The Sea, a retreat for women cancer patients in Ocean Grove.

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Milmoe’s fundraising has even helped raise awareness of breast cancer among those who are not patients. When Lucinda McConnachie, the mother of an Eagles football player, raised the idea of those teams wearing pink socks for Breast Cancer Awareness Month the way Verona High School’s varsity players do, the $500 needed to buy the socks came out of money from Milmoe. And unlike the disease, Milmoe’s generosity has been contagious, gathering more volunteers for the golf outings and sparking other fundraising. At the Eagles’ pink socks games, monies were gathered for WINGS.

“It’s just a snowball effect,” says the low-profile Milmoe. “I didn’t even ask them to do it.”

Photo copyright Heidi Huze. Used by permission.

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Virginia Citrano
Virginia Citranohttps://myveronanj.com
Virginia Citrano grew up in Verona. She moved away to write and edit for The Wall Street Journal’s European edition, Institutional Investor, Crain’s New York Business and Forbes.com. Since returning to Verona, she has volunteered for school, civic and religious groups, served nine years on the Verona Environmental Commission and is now part of Sustainable Verona. She co-founded MyVeronaNJ in 2009. You can reach Virginia at [email protected]

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