Walking to the Light

Tina McDonough’s Valley Girls & Guys! Team is the No. 1 Susan G, Komen fundraising team in the country. An amazing 75 percent of her team’s walkers come back every year.

November 2, 2013

After slogging 60 miles on foot in 2007 for Seattle’s Susan G. Komen 3-Day Race event to fight breast cancer, Tina McDonough’s head told her, never again. But when breast cancer claimed her friend’s life two months later, McDonough’s heart told her to walk to the ends of the Earth for a cure.

Her friend, Michelle Brown, had been living with breast cancer for four years and had talked McDonough into joining the event. Brown’s group of four walkers raised $11,945 that year, “but it was hard,” McDonough recalls. McDonough viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But when Brown died at age 38, McDonough’s reluctance faded.

“I watched her 12-year-old daughter and her husband fall apart. Attending her funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” McDonough says. “I knew I had to do something, so I started a team to walk in her memory.”

That team, Valley Girls & Guys!, is now the No. 1 fundraising team for the Susan G. Komen organization in the United States. Since 2008, the team has raised $1.4 million for the organization, the largest nonprofit source of breast cancer research funding outside of the U.S. government. In addition to research, the organization’s funding goes toward free mammograms for thousands of women, treatment assistance programs, and a survivor helpline.

This year, Valley Girls & Guys! will have 168 walkers, up from 38 when the team was launched five years ago. The average team has 10 members. Even more remarkable: 75 percent of walkers on McDonough’s team return every year.

“Most teams get only about one-third of their walkers to return,” she says. That’s because each participant is required to raise $2,300 in order to walk, and the walk itself takes over three days. “Twenty miles of walking a day is grueling and takes quite a bit of preparation.”

Laura Richardson, a childhood friend of McDonough who has been on her team from the start, says McDonough makes it easy. “With Tina, no walker is left behind. If you want to walk, she’ll make that happen. She’ll encourage you. The money portion isn’t so scary,” says Richardson.

The key, Richardson says, is McDonough’s passion. “She has the ability to keep people engaged. Her drive and passion are contagious.” McDonough acknowledges her dedication to the cause “isn’t a couple-month thing. It’s a year-long event.”

In addition to holding smaller monthly fundraisers, McDonough organizes four large events. One of her favorites is her well-known Survivor Event, held every August. “It’s a huge barbecue in our seven-acre backyard,” McDonough says. That event alone raises about $20,000.

One of the biggest events takes place in March, when the team hosts an auction night. “Last year, we had 425 guests and raised $151,000 in one night,” she says. “The entire team comes together for these events. It brings us closer and builds unity.” 

It’s also a way for McDonough to build personal relationships with the walkers, many of whom become her close friends. Everyone feels McDonough’s kind, caring embrace.

“I didn’t know Tina when I joined her team,” says Tracy Kudrna, a team member since 2009 and a breast cancer survivor. “They were raising a lot of money. I was in it for the fundraising.”

Today, Kudrna is one of 13 breast cancer survivors who walk with Valley Girls & Guys!, and she and McDonough have become good friends. “Tina rallies around people like no one else. She can fundraise around nothing. She’s brilliant,” Kudrna says.

It’s this special gift that has people devoted to her and the cause. “The best way I can explain it is that Tina sees fundraising opportunities everywhere. She’s passionate, and companies literally jump on board,” Pitzen says. “She is so good at recognizing and supporting the companies that sponsor us that they always want to go [above and beyond] to support her.”

McDonough never misses an opportunity to remind people about the cause; she even includes the Komen logo on her real estate signs. “It’s crazy to think one person can influence something like this, but it’s true,” says Richardson, whose grandmother passed away from breast cancer.

“If you told me six years ago that I’d be doing this, I would have laughed,” says McDonough. “I feel guilty that it took a tragedy for me to create this team. It’s the best way I can honor my friend and others who have succumbed to this disease.”