Longtime Gift of Life volunteer to co-chair 2017 South Florida Steps for Life 5K
In 1991, Gail Oliver volunteered to set up two donor recruitment drives to help find a matching bone marrow donor for a young man diagnosed with leukemia, Gift of Life Founder and CEO Jay Feinberg. She had no idea at the time that, over 20 years later, she would be volunteering for him again.
A miraculous story
Gail first heard about Jay in a Jewish Week news article. He needed a bone marrow transplant to cure his cancer, but there was no matching donor. Jay was of Eastern European Ashkenazi descent and soon learned that this group was extremely underrepresented in worldwide registries. He was told to make out his bucket list and do as much as he could while he had time.
Refusing to accept his fate, Jay’s friends and family began coordinating hundreds of donor recruitment drives to try and find him the perfect donor. Gail had just moved from Westchester to Newburgh, N.Y., and volunteered to set up drives in both locations.
It took four years, but Jay eventually found a donor, received his transplant and recovered. The difficulty of his donor search inspired him to found Gift of Life Marrow Registry, with the mission of increasing the diversity of marrow registries so that every person battling blood cancer can find a matching donor.
“There’s more to this story,” said Gail. “I was invited to the first Gift of Life Gala, when Jay was introduced to his bone marrow donor Becky. Becky had tried to join the registry when she was only 16, but donors must be 18 so she wasn’t accepted. If she had been in the database during the first search, Jay’s match would have been found immediately, and perhaps he would have simply gone on with his life. Gift of Life might not exist. The thousands who have found their donors through this registry would not have been saved.” This miraculous story still amazes Gail.
20 years later…
Fast forward to 2014, Gail and her husband moved to the Valencia Palms community in Delray Beach, Fla. and she knew that Gift of Life was headquartered next door in Boca Raton.
“Playing mah jongg and pickleball were not enough for me, so I called up and offered to volunteer, thinking they’d ask me to stuff envelopes,” said Gail. “Instead they asked me to help with a fundraiser walk!” Shortly afterward, Gail showed up at a community watercolor class only to find it had been cancelled. Another woman showed up, too, and in the course of conversation Gail learned that the woman, Barbara Cohen, was a stem cell transplant recipient and leukemia survivor. Gail mentioned her involvement with Gift of Life and they decided to join forces.
Gail and Barbara got to work in their community and organized a Valencia Palms Walk for Life team, which raised $2,200 in January 2015. At the 2016 Walk for Life event, the team raised more than $6,600.
Excited by this success. Gail and Barbara formed the Gift of Life Club at Valencia Palms, allowing the group to use the social hall and have a regular column in the community newspaper.
Gail and Barbara are now serving as Gift of Life’s South Florida Steps for Life 5k co-chairs, to be held Sunday, January 15, 2017 on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. To register or learn more, click here.
They have plenty of other plans as well, and are organizing multiple events through the Gift of Life Club at Valencia Palms. A Sweets and Greets event was held on December 5 to introduce their community, and other communities, to the Gift of Life mission. In February 2017, Valencia Palms will be hosting a Gift of Life Club Bowling party and on March 30, Gail will be chairing the first Gift of Life Pickleball Tournament at Boca West Country Club. Registration for these events will open soon on the Steps for Life website, www.giftoflife.org/stepsforlife.
Tips from a born networker!
Gail is a natural networker and is currently a certified health coach for Take Shape for Life, a program that helps people attain a healthier lifestyle. She has great tips for anyone seeking to better their networking skills, and is generous about sharing them.
“I ask everyone I meet, ‘What are you up to? What are you into?’ and then afterward I make notes about their interests in the Memo App on my phone,” said Gail. When she gets home she puts her notes in an Excel spreadsheet, to help keep track of when and where she met people, and who introduced them.
“I try to involve people by inviting them to do something small that they enjoy,” she said. “Often people are afraid to initially volunteer, but if you ask them to help you with a little something and they come to know the importance of Gift of Life’s mission, it will become their cause as well.” She also suggests asking people to use their strengths and interests as volunteers.
To learn more about joining the Valencia Palms Gift of Life Club, or creating a Gift of Life Club in your community contact Gail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To register or start a team for the Gift of Life South Florida Steps for Life 5K on January 15, 2017 at Florida Atlantic University, visit www.giftoflife.org/stepsforlife. Site tools include team creation, social media, fundraising tools and more.