Article and Photos by Leah Adams
The saying,” When life gives you lemons make lemonade” could not have been more apropos for Carolyn Bongirno, who at 38-years-old was diagnosed with third stage breast cancer. After undergoing treatment, Carolyn realized a need for a charity that empowered children & young adults to better cope with a friend or family member’s cancer diagnosis as well as a method to provide health and wellness education. From that inspiration, Skate for Hope was born.
This year’s show, Saturday May 2 in Bowling Green, Ohio at the BGSU Arena, features a blockbuster cast of Olympic and national competitors, which includes two-time U.S. Champion and hometown participant Alissa Czisny; four-time U.S. Champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist Jeremy Abbott; reigning U.S. Pairs Champions Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim; Olympian Emily Hughes; 2015 U.S. bronze medalists ice dancers Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue; Disney on Ice cast member Alexe Gilles, American Open Champion Dan Hollander and reigning British Championships Caitlin Yankowskas and Hamish Gaman.
Figure Skaters Online recently chatted about Skate for Hope with Carolyn Bongirno and how it has evolved the past twelve years to one of the most prestigious skating shows in the country.
Figure Skaters Online(FSO): Carolyn, you have a team of volunteers and a few part-time compensated staff, however, you are mostly a one woman operation. How do you go about soliciting sponsors for the show?
Carolyn Bongirno(CB): That is quite a challenge. First, I approach all the potential sponsors in the community. I explain the marketing return on their investment. It’s like throwing 50-100 darts before a sponsor understands our mission and it meshes with their interest.
FSO: How much time does that one facet take from your time?
CB: I’d say 40-45%, but without the underwriting and funding, there is no event.
CB: Sitting in the audience watching the Celebration Ceremony and seeing a skater present their loved one with the crystal medal. Skating for them and helping their loved one is the greatest moment hands down.
FSO: How do you go about selecting the athletes for the event?
CB: All of the athletes are die hard supporters of Skate for Hope. Many, many more are invited, but there are always scheduling conflicts. Athletes are very torn because they cannot attend. I spoke with Jason Brown’s mother; he so wanted to be with us. He has huge family commitments. We invited just about everyone yet we are at the mercy of their schedules.
FSO: For the first time ever you have a second SFH in Estero, Florida on August 28 at the Germaine Arena. How are you juggling two shows?
CB: Fortunately, they are four months apart so I will be working like a dog ten months a year and the other two months I work part time. I get off the plane May 3 from the Ohio event and wake up May 4 and its guns blazing Florida. Here we go!
FSO: What have you learned that you would not do again?
CB: We are starting to do two things differently. In 2015, Skate for Hope made a change to support all types of cancer research. We know breakthroughs in one area of research can lead to an advancement in another area. We trust the cancer centers we give our funds to, to do the most amazing work. The other lesson I learned over the years is that SFH needs to tout more what it does for its participants and audience members. We have focused so much on all the money we donate to research that we have not shouted from the rafters we are a care and coping program for children an young adults. We are one of the only charities in the United States that is specifically dedicated to helping people cope when someone in their life is battling cancer. We are shifting our focus to talking more about our program and the good deeds we do.
FSO: What does Skate for Hope need?
CB: Our 2015 goal is to identify individual sponsors and corporate sponsors to help us expand our website to provide online care and coping resources. Then any teen or child could view videos of Olympic or National athletes discussing how they dealt with a parent or family member’s cancer diagnosis. Scott Hamilton’s CARE initiative and the American Cancer Society both have mentoring programs. At Skate for Hope, we do not have a staff or the resources to pair kids with someone going through a similar experience. We instead would like for our website to become a place where everyone could come and view videos of support, advice and encouragement from others that have been there. Funding for this project is a huge goal for 2015.
FSO: Do you have one charming, delightful or humorous story from the past 12 years that you can share with us? Yes, we are talking about cancer, but you’re also speaking about a show that is so much fun!
CB: It’s like fireworks going off in my mind because there are so many moments of joy and laughter. My friend, Heidi Floyd said it best, ‘SFH is the only cancer event that you leave with your fists pumping in the air and you are rocking and rolling.’
One of my funny memories is two-time U.S. Pairs Champion John Coughlin coming to dinner and pulling me aside saying, ‘I heard we got paid in caramel apples and I didn’t believe it until Rockne(Brubaker) (two-time U.S. Pairs Champion), knocked on my hotel door and he had nothing but caramel apple and chocolate in his beard.’
Another fun moment was at a Friday night dinner before the show. Johnny Weir was speaking to Dr. Mike Calateri from the medical center. Johnny says Dr. Calateri, one of the leading oncologists in the country, “Will you be at the show tomorrow?” Dr. Calateri looks at Johnny and replies,” Yes, I’ll be there.” Johnny then asks, “And will you be wearing sparkles?”
FSO: What is one question no one ever asks?
CB: For the past twelve years I have had fifteen to twenty people with me. Their names are printed in the program and acknowledged at our dinners and at the shows. People don’t ask for a list of those that make SFH possible but I want to say how thankful I am for my family, Kristen Izzie, Martha Jankowski, Pam Morlan, and all of our choreographers and volunteers.
FSO: Finally, how would one donate to SFH?
CB: Thank you for that question! Go to www.skateforhope.org and there is a donate tab.