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Nearly 3,600 participate in first Komen race in Ocean City

Participation above expectations for local event as other affiliates struggle with drop in donations after Planned Parenthood controversy

By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

4:53 PM EDT, April 22, 2012

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Nearly 3,600 people ran or walked in the rainy and slippery inaugural Susan G. Komen breast cancer race in Ocean City Sunday, despite early concerns that a controversy involving Planned Parenthood could hurt attendance.

Breast cancer survivors, their families and supporters showed up on Ocean City's boardwalk just after sunrise, ready to race in rain and cool temperatures. Pink was the color of the day, on everything from sneakers to bandannas and wigs.

Planned Parenthood wasn't on most attendees' minds two months after Komen officials pulled funding from the national organization, then changed their minds after a public outcry. Race organizers never mentioned the incident during the festivities, which raised more than $254,000.

Breast cancer survivor Susan Singh of Berlin said educating women about breast cancer was too important not to support Komen.

She had no symptoms when she was diagnosed with the disease in 2009 and said a mammogram helped save her life. After nine surgeries, she is a survivor.

Singh, who raised $800 for the race, said some people wouldn't give because of the Planned Parenthood flap.

"I think it is a shame," she said. "I think it is important to educate women about screening because it saves lives."

Some affiliates of the cancer-fighting organization — including those in central Indiana, southwest Florida and southwestern Arizona — have experienced declines in fundraising and participation because of the Planned Parenthood incident. But in Ocean City, the number of registrants was higher than the 3,000 that race organizers had anticipated, leaving the group hopeful about future fundraising.

But the Ocean City race is much smaller than typical "Race for the Cure" events, which are usually local affiliates' largest fundraisers. Registration and fundraising for the annual October race in Hunt Valley have not begun. That race attracted around 32,000 people last year.

"We are thrilled with the support that we've seen," Brittany Fowler, communications and development coordinator for Komen Maryland, said of the Ocean City race. "The fact that we've exceeded our goal is great."

Many local affiliates are still reeling from the January decision by Komen's national headquarters to pull funding from Planned Parenthood, which offers abortions among its services.

Criticized for letting politics infiltrate the organization, Komen reversed course days later.

The woman at the center of the controversy, Maryland native Karen Walker Handel, resigned a short time later. The former Republican secretary of state in Georgia had called for Planned Parenthood to be defunded while seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010 and was said to have pushed for the funding ban at Komen as well.

A spokeswoman for Komen National said the Planned Parenthood incident has had varying degrees of impact on local affiliates. While attendance and fundraising is down in some cities, others have exceeded their expectations, spokeswoman Andrea Rader said.

"We know that some people may be upset with us but hope they know that we've been serving women for 30 years and this help is still very much needed, especially for low-income, uninsured and underinsured women," Rader said.

Komen participants Sunday stuck by their cause.

Sharon Sweet, 61, of Hampstead, was walking her first Komen race Sunday to support a friend who is a 10-year survivor.

"No matter who you are, you know someone who has been affected by cancer," she said. "That is why we need Komen."

Edla Coleman, with the group Survivors Offering Support, said organizations like hers also depend on Komen funds. The group, which trains survivors to mentor newly diagnosed women, started as a volunteer group and now works with 12 hospitals around the state with help from Komen.

"Anybody that looks at the breadth of what Komen does would support them," Coleman said.

Colleen McGowan, of Herndon, Va., said that she thought hard about her support for Komen when the group decided to reinstate funding for Planned Parenthood. She said she understands why people on both sides of the issue may choose not to support the group.

McGowan, who said Handel had been unfairly targeted and the Planned Parenthood issue misconstrued, ultimately continued her support for Komen, saying breast cancer education was too important to abandon. She was joined by several family members, who turned the race into a weekend event.

Others weren't so understanding.

About a dozen protesters stood at the finish line demanding Komen pull Planned Parenthood funding once again.

"I am shocked that a noble, respected group like Komen would associate with Planned Parenthood," said Kurt Linnemann, executive director of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, an anti-abortion group, which led the protest.

The race secured both local and national supporters, including Bank of America, Yoplait, Walgreens and Self magazine.

In other parts of the country, local affiliates are losing supporters.

Komen Puget Sound in Seattle sent an email Friday saying registrations were down 50 percent from last year and pleading for support.

The Race for the Cure in southern Arizona last month drew 7,200 runners and walkers, compared with 10,000 last year. Donations, registration fees and corporate sponsorships were roughly $560,000, well below the $700,000 goal.

Spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said that officials with Komen Southern Arizona had increased their marketing efforts to draw supporters to the race, but that the Planned Parenthood incident was still on people's minds.

"There were still a huge amount of people who felt like they couldn't trust the brand anymore," she said.

Drummond, who said the race is the organization's biggest fundraiser, added that she hopes people will slowly start to trust the organization again.

"It has to get better next year," she said. "We are talking about people's lives here."

Donations for the Southwest Florida Race for the Cure in March declined about 15 percent, to $850,000 from last year's $1 million, according to news reports.

Organizers of the race in Indiana this weekend also said registration and donations have declined. They expected about 26,000 people to participate, down from 37,500 last year. Funding was expected to be down about 32 percent to 33 percent.

Dana Cruish, executive director of the Central Indiana Komen affiliate, said the economy and gas prices also contributed to the declines, but she blamed them mostly on the Planned Parenthood incident.

"People have strong feelings on both sides of the issue and have chosen not to participate," she said.

In March, Cruish sent a letter to past participants asking them to continue their support. She reminded them that women need the services Komen helps fund.

"You think you're hurting Komen," she said. "But it's not really Komen who will be hurt. It will be the people who go to their local grantees for a mammogram and the grantee has run out of money."

She said that the appeals have helped bring people back and that she hopes the strong feelings will eventually fade.

"I think that the anger will die down," she said. "I think it's up to Komen affiliates to make sure we're really telling our story."

In Maryland, Fowler said the Komen affiliate worked to spread the message that it had never funded Planned Parenthood. The group also tried to separate itself from the national organization and focus on local work. Seventy-five percent of funds raised stay in the state, Fowler said.

"We tried to drive home that every dollar raised really could help your mom, your sister, your neighbor or your co-worker," Fowler said. "We have been fortunate that translated well and people have been able to understand that."

The group is looking to make the Ocean City race a destination event. This weekend, participants came from more than 20 states.

Organizers expect to grow the race over time. The Hunt Valley race started with just 2,500 runners, Fowler said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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