When cancer creeps into a family in the community, Christmas Without Cancer (CWC) likely enters the situation.
Such was the case for Renee Copeland, who in 2017 was in her aunt and uncle’s home preparing to help raise funds her young cousin, Nicholas, who was diagnosed near his first birthday with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.
“We were working on ‘Nick’s Fight’ when I first heard about Christmas Without Cancer,” said Copeland, CWC vice president. “My cousin was telling us how they were chosen to be a Christmas Without Cancer family.”
As Copeland chipped in to help her extended family, she began to grasp the implications of Christmas Without Cancer’s entry into Nick’s Fight. A collective effort led to one of the biggest benefits ever held at 115 Bourbon Street.
That Christmas, Copeland saw online a host of volunteers enter a familiar home as they delivered gifts to Nick and the four older children, a routinely brilliant plan to bring Christmas to the broken hearts of those in fear of losing a loved one.
“It was especially nice for the four older siblings who were impacted so greatly by Nick’s cancer,” said Copeland.
Nicholas, who fought off cancer most of his young life, died in May of 2019. That experience and Copeland’s innate desire to help others hastened her resolve to get more deeply involved.
Copeland recognized and admired another initiative, Harvesting Hope, the brainchild of Michelle Wood, a therapist who lives and works in the area and sees needs everyday that she and her husband Tom are committed to addressing.
Copeland reached out and bonded immediately with Wood.
“I told Michelle that I just met these wonderful people through ‘Nick’s Fight,’ and now I want to pay it forward,” said Copeland. “I met [CWC Founder Gerri Neylon] that same summer and, I guess, the rest is history.”
The chemistry between Wood and Copeland triggered “amazing ideas” and additional vigor to help Christmas Without Cancer help others.
Neylon called Copeland a “gift from the heavens.”
In short order, Copeland provided her skills that filled a void growing wider with the dependence upon social media for building awareness, raising funds and helping those in need. That a pandemic made the internet even more vital suggests it was destiny for Copeland.
Fresh off a successful 15 years at Katten Muchin Rosenman as the corporate administrative team leader for the firm’s attorneys, Copeland reassessed her upward mobility and opted for a new career direction with options as a “stay-at-home mom.”
The Oak Lawn native now resides in Alsip with her husband, Will, and their three children. With a degree in administration and computer software, Copeland harmonized well with Neylon, the face of Christmas Without Cancer.
“I’d like to say that we were poised for growth,” said Neylon. “But, honestly, we grew because there was so much need, so much cancer and so many referrals to us. Renee’s talent, along with hard work, helped us at a most pivotal time of growth and new challenges because of COVID-19.”
Neylon asked Copeland to serve as a vice president. Newly retired, Neylon wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren.
Copeland made her presence felt immediately with a smash event in November of 2018 with Harvesting Hope, filling Jacob’s Well with people and gift baskets that raised thousand of dollars for local families. The second year was even more successful; however, this year’s event has been canceled due to crowd-control requirements.
Cancellations have not hindered Copeland, who organized a Facebook event recently to raffle off valuable gift cards donated by CWC committee members. She and Neylon served as live, on-air hosts. The two responded after play was suspended for the Queen of Hearts fundraiser at St. James Place, taking to social media again to retain momentum and hit a high-water mark last week of $178,000 after state restrictions were relaxed.
Connecting through Facebook, Queen of Hearts players can join the action from home.
Copeland created “Reindeer Games,” an interactive event in which players claim prizes while at the same time donating to Christmas Without Cancer.
For Neylon, a great burden has been lifted with Copeland by her side. There were December nights in years past when the oncology nurse would wake up wondering, “What would happen to all those families if something happened to me?”
Her concerns, she said, have been lessened.
“Now with Renee involved in the most intricate details in running Christmas Without Cancer,” Neylon said, “I know we have a bright tomorrow and a successor who can carry on what began as an attempt to help just one family at Christmas.”
CWC Virtual 5K
Christmas Without Cancer invites community residents to participate in the sixth annual CWC 5K Run/Walk, which this year is a virtual event running “on your honor” from Saturday, Sept. 19, through Saturday, Sept. 26.
The walk/run will take place any day or time during that week.
Registration is available on the run signup page at runsignup.com.
Sponsorship information is available on the CWC Facebook page.
For more information, visit the website for Christmas Without Cancer.