Wrangell’s Muskeg Meadows golf course will host the WMC Foundation’s Rally for Cancer Care event this weekend (August 6).
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Residents of small Alaska communities have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles for some types of medical care. One Wrangell foundation aims to help Southeast residents receiving cancer treatment with some of those travel costs – and they’re holding a “Fun and Frolic” golf rally this weekend (August 6) to earn money for the cause.

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Many Southeast Alaska residents don’t have access to cancer treatment in their communities. For some patients, that means traveling to Sitka, Seattle, or further down south. Those costs add up. And that’s where the WMC Foundation comes in.

“The one thing that insurance – if you’ve got it – doesn’t cover is getting there,” says Chris Ellis, a Wrangell resident and golfer who has been involved with the WMC Foundation’s fundraising for years. “Literally, nobody gets treatment here in town. It just isn’t a possibility. It’s one of the things we give up when we choose to live here. But [it’s a comfort] knowing that there’s help, and you’re not alone in having to get someplace, and knowing there’s a whole community behind you.”

The WMC Foundation started in 2008, affiliated with the former Wrangell Medical Center. The medical center has since been taken over by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) but the foundation still exists separately. It changed its name to “WMC,” to reduce confusion.

“What we do is we reimburse people that have to travel out of town for cancer care,” retired nurse and WMC Foundation board member Janet Buness explains. “The reimbursement is $1,200 for a year, and it covers transportation and your hotel. It can be a rental car, so that it’s not just jet fare or ferry trips.”

Olinda White, the treasurer for the WMC Foundation and former CFO of Wrangell’s hospital, says that the foundation has reimbursed $132,000-worth of travel costs for more than 150 cancer patients in Wrangell, Petersburg and other small communities in southern Southeast. 

“Some people go on the ferry, so it’s, you know, a couple hundred dollars,” White elaborates. “Some people fly and have to be gone for quite a while, so they have a large amount of money that isn’t reimbursed by insurance and we [help] pay for the rest.”

Over the years, the WMC Foundation has fundraised in a variety of ways – a book sale, chocolate lovers’ festival, and raffle. Last year, the foundation also received $10,000 from former Alaska First Lady Nancy Murkowski, through fundraising at the Waterfall Resort on Prince of Wales Island between Hydaburg and Craig. 

Nowadays, the main way it earns money is the Rally for Cancer Care, a 9-hole “Fun and Frolic” golf event held at Wrangell’s Muskeg Meadows Golf Course. This year it’s scheduled for 9 a.m. on Saturday, August 6. 

Ann Kramer was the mammography and imaging supervisor at Wrangell’s hospital for more than 25 years. She says the event is especially for women.

“‘Women’s Fun and Frolic,’” she says, “That doesn’t mean old women. Bring young women, bring teenage girls, and I’ve even taken my 11-year-old granddaughter. It’s a wonderful way to help others and to share and build positive memories.”

Kramer says that the event might be tough for competent golfers. In addition to the nine holes – many of which are played with special rules, like having a foot in a bucket, or hitting a wiffle ball instead of a golf ball – there’s a putting contest and a silent auction.

“There will be an expert golfer, Jim Abbott, who will be there to give you some tips on how to hold in your club and hit the ball, hopefully in the forward direction,” Kramer explains with a laugh. 

SEARHC, Wrangell’s healthcare provider, has also stepped in this year to donate prizes, prize money, and run some games. Cash prizes will run up to $300, and raffle items include golf clubs, canvas lawn chairs, an outdoor solo stove, and more. Art from local artists and “beverages brewed here in the Wrangell area” are up for auction during the silent auction. 

Plus, the food. 

“My gosh the food for days, you’ve just never had such food,” Kramer exclaims. “We’re going to have pulled pork and slaw so all you southern gals have your barbecue sandwiches with your slaw on it. Pasta salads, potato salad – we have so many wonderful donors to this, we have some special, special cupcakes that are going to be coming, and flower arrangements…”

For years, the event’s centerpiece dessert has been a “boob cake,” a cheeky nod to its roots in breast cancer treatment fundraising. Last year, the featured sweet was a very busty mermaid cake. WMC Foundation President Patty Gilbert says the foundation is switching it up this year. 

“No boob cake,” Gilbert laughs, “But booby cupcakes are going to be available along with booby prizes, so alert the girls.”

She says the event will go on rain or shine. And she adds that first-time golfers will fit right in: “All you have to know is how to spell golf, and you’ll be fine.”

WMC Foundation members like Kramer say that even ladies who don’t golf should come out and enjoy the lawn games and food, and participate in the silent auction. 

“It’s so wonderful to have such fun and to know you’re helping somebody,” Kramer says, “Because someday you might be that somebody.”

Outside of the event, treasurer White says the foundation is always encouraging more applications. 

“Don’t say, ‘I don’t need it. So I’m not going to apply,” White exhorts. “The funds are there for everyone. We would like everyone to apply that has to leave town for any type of cancer treatment. Every [dollar]is helpful, and it needs to be used.”

The $1,200 annual reimbursements from the WMC Foundation are available to anyone being treated for cancer in any southern Southeast community of fewer than 5,000 people, says foundation president Gilbert.

“We’re advertising on Prince of Wales Island, in Petersburg, and Wrangell, to try to get the word out,” Gilbert says. 

Buness, the retired nurse, says the application for reimbursement is incredibly simple. 

“It’s one page, it’s really, really easy to fill out,” she says. “It doesn’t ask you anything about what your income is, or anything like that. It does ask what type of health insurance you have, and wants to know the name of your physician.”

Gilbert says the foundation aims to never have to turn a cancer patient away. 

“We’ve never denied an application,” she says. “We did advertise in Juneau for a couple of years, and Juneau was really on the spot in terms of advertising this wonderful benefit, so we got many requests from Juneau, and it was just too much for us to handle with our fundraising events. [But] we want to continue this program as long as possible.”

Chris Ellis says it’s inspiring at the rally each year to see Wrangell and Petersburg women come together to show people going through a hard time that they’re not alone. 

“Everybody kind of sets aside their differences for a day and just focuses on having fun, and doing something good for somebody else,” Ellis says. 

At the rally, there’s a moment of recognition for cancer survivors. 

“They will call for everyone who is a cancer survivor to stand and they’ll be given a pink carnation,” Kramer explains. “It’s just truly humbling and very emotionally supportive all the way around. We are just one people and we’re all in this together.”

There’s also a special, sentimental tapestry that comes out once a year for the Rally for Cancer Care event. 

“On it, we have balloons,” Kramer says, “And you can write the name of your loved one, somebody who’s had cancer – survived or passed. Every year, we add to it, and it is just overwhelming to look at the balloons, look at the names and remember all these wonderful people. They’re not forgotten. And we’re working hard to raise money to help others so they can be success stories.”

In addition to helping cancer patients with travel treatment costs, the foundation also seeks to support a new generation of Alaska healthcare workers – it sponsors a yearly $1,000 scholarship for Wrangell High School students going into healthcare-related fields, renewable for four years. 

The WMC Foundation Rally for Cancer Care is scheduled to take place beginning at 9 a.m. on Saturday August 6. Registration is $35. There will be a boat from Banana Point to Wrangell to bring Petersburg residents over for the rally. For more details about the event or the WMC Foundation, visit the foundation website at wmccancercare.com

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.