Healing sometimes happens through the process of giving.
Wittenberg graduates Erika Rich, class of 2015, who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in February 2019 at the age of 25, and her sister, Jessica Sinclair, class of 2016, are healing together through the creation of the nonprofit Bloom Foundation Gives.
With the mission of raising awareness, funds, and providing resources for breast cancer patients to help enhance their overall wellness and quality of life, the foundation hopes to lift the spirits of women dealing with breast cancer and combat treatment side effects with ‘FUN’ so they can each go through the healing process with a positive attitude.
“We want to empower women during a time that can cause mental illness, identity loss, excessive weight gain/loss, and financial strains,” said Rich, who is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and graduated with degrees in marketing and entrepreneurship. “We grant, host, and surprise women with haircutting parties, shopping sprees, personal trainers/accountability buddies, resources for mental health, and overall wellness. We take away the financial stress women face when they have to cut their hair, or their bodies change due to surgeries, and treatment side effects. We take away the stress of having to decide between spending money on yourself or your family and treatment. We aim to have more breast cancer patients put ‘fun’ and cancer in the same sentence and a smile on their face.”
After 10 rounds of chemo treatment, 18 rounds of targeted and complete brain radiation, and more than 20 rounds of continued gene-targeted therapy, Erika turned her sights outward. Her sister and co-founder, Jessica, had the idea for the nonprofit after Erika’s initial diagnosis. Jessica, who graduated with a degree in psychology and minors in both art and health science, also needed a capstone project to achieve her master’s degree at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Through the capstone project, she created the idea of Bloom Foundation Gives, a nonprofit that would help educate others about breast cancer and emphasize that “the disease doesn’t discriminate based on age or how healthy you think are.” Erika wanted to shed light on how “a stage IV diagnosis is not a death sentence, but a new beginning to start living,” so she decided to make her sister’s capstone project a reality.
“It was very hard for me to focus on my initial plan of writing a grant for a soccer field as my capstone once my sister Erika was diagnosed,” said Jessica, who played for Wittenberg’s women’s soccer team alongside her sister. “As a family, we were all scared and had no idea what the future would hold for my sister or for us. In fact, we could only decode about three percent of what the doctors were telling us at the first couple of appointments. We were overloaded with information and had compiled notes and materials that were essentially in another language. It took my family and me a few days just to try to wrap our heads around what HER 2+ meant, how to spell metastatic, and what metastatic actually meant (when the cancer has spread to other vital organs and areas throughout the body). So, I made it my mission to ensure my family and I knew everything we could to help my sister.”
Jessica signed Erika up for cancer care packages and with different groups in the area to see what was offered. Unfortunately, she found limited offerings in the breast cancer community, especially for those like her sister with a metastatic diagnosis.
“All of this information not only frightened me, but also angered me,” she said. “How can people be treated differently because they may have a worse and more threatening condition of cancer than others? The answer was simple: women with metastatic breast cancer scared the other women who were more likely to be in remission. As it turns out, there is currently no cure for someone who receives a metastatic diagnosis.”
After brain radiation in December 2019 and receiving a generous Christmas gift from her boss at the Erin Krueger Team at Compass Real Estate where she was a licensed Realtor in Tennessee, Erika brought the foundation to life. She then looked to her Wittenberg connections to appoint a board of directors. Both Erika and Jessica were members of Delta Gamma sorority at Wittenberg and developed great relationships over the years through the sorority. Current board members for the foundation include Chelsey (Marcum) Haas, class of 2015; Georgia (Bennett) Mallory, class of 2015; Tobie Weston, class of 2015; Meghan White, class of 2015; Maddy Straughn, class of 2016; and Greg Gernetzke, class of 2015.
“Cancer really shows you who your friends are,” said Erika, who is also passionate about yoga, having completed 500 hours of Baptiste yoga teacher training, 300 of which was during her chemo treatments to help her to keep a positive mental state of mind.
“When people show up, don’t take that for granted. While all of us live around the United States, my friends dropped everything to be by my side from the very beginning,” she added. “They wouldn’t take ‘no, I’m fine’ for an answer. We all met through Delta Gamma, and Greg, who handles the finances for the foundation, was an entrepreneurship major with me. Each board member fit into their position like a glove because of current and past experiences, which made my job easy. I am so grateful to have such a fantastic, well-rounded, and smart group to call my board of directors.”
By January 2020, the foundation was ready to host its first event, the Love Over Fear fundraiser, where Bloom Foundation Gives was born. The event raised enough money to provide a yoga teacher training scholarship, cancer care packages, and additional startup costs. The foundation has since launched a merchandise line, held yoga fundraisers, donated eight other cancer care bags, raised money for four shopping sprees, and much more.
“My sister was feeling very ambitious and motivated, and helped me turn my capstone project into a reality,” said Jessica, who is currently the secretary of the Bloom Foundation and was instrumental for embroidering the three flowers on the first set of Love Over Fear T-shirts, along with the creation of logos for the new merchandise, and other marketing tools. “Her hard work and passion while undergoing chemotherapy, gene-targeted therapy, and radiation were absolutely astonishing. Erika’s strength, motivation, and story helped to make Bloom Foundation Gives into what it is today. She has provided so many people with hope, strength, and support. I am very proud of her work and cannot wait to see what the future holds for her and the foundation.”
After graduating from Wittenberg, Jessica began working in a secondary life skills classroom for children with special needs. Also wanting to give back to the soccer community, she started coaching a middle school girls team and a girl’s club team at the Pittsburgh Football Club (PFC). While continuing her education and obtaining her master’s in communications at Chatham University, she served as the assistant women’s soccer coach for two years.
Erika, president of the nonprofit, continues to focus on healing. She recently decided to retire her Tennessee real estate license and remain at home in Pittsburgh, where she has been since her treatments began.
“After cancer moved to my lungs in May of this year, my health quickly became my number one job. Now after three months of treatment, I feel better than ever, and I have been able to get off the oxygen and start working out again,” said Erika, who first noticed a lump while doing yoga in October of 2018, but didn’t think anything of it.
“I told myself I was too busy for a doctor’s appointment. I thought I was too young and ‘healthy’ to get breast cancer, so I didn’t prioritize it,” she added. “Now, inspired by the generosity of others, the shock of my diagnosis, and with my entrepreneurship background, my sisters, and this nonprofit, I continue to have purpose during these challenging times. I’m able to continue to raise money through donation-based yoga classes with partners like SweatNet and independently. I took on Wittenberg’s motto ‘having light we pass it on to others’ and my Delta Gamma motto ‘do good.’ The combination has been present in my resilience for this foundation and my healing. One thing is for sure; I will never take a breath for granted.”
Since launching, the foundation has raised more than $12,000 through fundraisers and donations. If you are interested in donating, click here.