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NEA Goes Pink as Race for the Cure Returns
By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Amy Long

The inaugural Northeast Arkansas Race for the Cure was an incredible success, with more than 4,000 participants helping to raise $415,000 for the world’s largest nonprofit source of funding for the fight against breast cancer. The 2018 chairs, Candace Cooper and Julie Isaacson, along with their dedicated committee of volunteers, are hoping to blow those numbers out of the water while increasing awareness of and funding for the disease in Jonesboro and the surrounding areas.

Cooper, who chaired the 2017 race, is joined at the helm this year by Isaacson, a breast cancer survivor with a passion for keeping the funds raised right here in NEA.

“I’m a survivor; that’s my main motivation,” said Isaacson, who was diagnosed in 2004. “I want to get the word out to women with breast cancer that they are so much more than their diagnosis. There is life during and after breast cancer.

“I was chair of the sponsorship committee last year. I loved working with Candace, and I have close ties with the university. It seemed to be a natural fit. Together, we could create what the race needed to be this year, which will help shape what the race will be for years to come.”

Cooper said that Isaacson was as much a part of the race last year as she was, so the two decided to officially co-chair the race together in 2018.

“I became involved with Susan G. Komen because of my close friend and survivor Brandie Lieblong,” said Cooper. “However, the relationships I formed with committee members, other survivors and race sponsors were my main motivation for serving again this year.”

While NEA’s first event of its kind was an incredible success, organizers said they will look to build on what they did well while making adjustments to what they can do better in 2018. One of those changes will be to focus on more involvement from other cities and towns across NEA.

“We were focused on race details the first year,” said Isaacson. “This year, our goal is to do a better job of reaching out to all of Northeast Arkansas. This is their race, too. We are trying really hard to make this a Northeast Arkansas race. One of Komen’s roles is to reach areas that don’t have access to mammograms, and we have several counties in Northeast Arkansas that fit that need. We need this race to be inclusive and involve our sisters across NEA. That’s what it’s all about. We figured out how to do the race last year. This year, we are working on making everyone in Northeast Arkansas feel like it’s their race.

“… The whole reason we do this is to raise money. Northeast Arkansas is a target area for Komen because we have the highest mortality in all of Arkansas. For me, the fact that 25 percent of that money goes straight to research, I feel really good about that.”

Other changes include extended packet pickup hours with team captains able to pick up packets for their whole team, a stage at the start of the race, more decorations on the concourse, the addition of a commemorative Susan G. Komen bell that is available for purchase and more of a presence on social media.

“We want to deliver a quality event that will honor the cause,” said Cooper. “We are always trying to find ways to make it special.”

The inaugural race was so successful that the Arkansas Susan G. Komen Foundation hired an in-town director for the 2018 race. The co-chairs have been working closely with Beth Smith, a 2017 Arkansas State University Distinguished Alumni, who is very involved in the Jonesboro community.

“Hopefully a cure for breast cancer will soon be found,” said Cooper. “However, until it is, our community will be fighting to raise money for research and education. A race director provides continuity from year to year. There are so many pieces to the race that it is essential to have someone who has been there. … Beth’s reputation as a leader and friend in our community is invaluable.”

Isaacson said that this year, NEA got more grants than usual, which is evidence enough for her that their hard work is worth it because it’s being used effectively in her own backyard.

“My goal is for our hard work to return to us, and I think it is,” she said. “Grants are awarded for programs that support the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The focus of grants this year was substance-based; more than just supportive, they can fund research and ways to diagnose and treat breast cancer. While support like wigs or medicine is important, grants are much more diagnostic; they’re more substance-based. If we can bring that money back to NEA, that’s huge in my opinion.”

The race’s location at Centennial Bank Stadium on the Arkansas State University campus is vital to the event’s success, and this year, the race will be held a week earlier so that students and campus organizations can help support the race before classes let out for the summer.

“Julie was able to move our race to a date when A-State students will still be on campus,” said Cooper. “Fraternities and sororities are ‘pinking out’ their houses on the race route, Dr. Damphousse is hosting a cookout and A-State Athletics is helping with the Survivor Parade. The university’s support is overwhelming.”

Isaacson said that working with the community calendar a bit this year and being able to include A-State students will have a huge impact on the event.

“We tried to focus on NEA involvement and a theme, and since the A-State Executive Leadership Team is the honorary chair this year, we wanted to also pay tribute to educators across NEA this year; that’s our underlying theme,” she said.

The 2018 honorary chairs are A-State’s Kelly Damphousse, Len Frey, Jason Penry, Rick Stripling, Terry Mohajir, Lynita Cooksey and Maurice Gipson.

“I think they’re incredibly invested in the race this year,” said Isaacson of A-State. “It’s unique for this area to be able to use the stadium, but they’re in it with us. It’s the perfect spot. We have all the support, parking, location and facilities we need. It made it special to our event.

“Also, the athletic department always has a volunteer cause every year, and this year, it’s us. The entire department will support our event as their annual volunteer experience this year. They are just the absolute best partner we could ever have.”

“We could not have had the race we did last year without the executive team from A-State,” said Cooper. “We met for hours and hours at meeting after meeting. They didn’t just allow us to use their facilities, they helped us figure out how to use them – how we could pull it off.”

This 2018 “More Than Pink Through Education” theme is also reflected in all five event honorees, Suzanne Callahan, Sandra Combs, Mary Eary, Candace Gross and Amy Searcy, all of whom are educators across NEA.

The co-chairs say that now that the committee has figured out many of the logistics of such a large-scale event, this year, they can work on fine-tuning certain aspects to better benefit the foundation.

“It was good to realize last year what we had done well and what we could do better,” said Isaacson. “We were blown away by the support last year – sponsorship, participants and survivors. For sponsorships, I asked and people said, ‘yes.’ It just speaks to the goodness of the community. NEA takes care of NEA, it really does.

“We are so grateful to all of our sponsors. Barton’s, our presenting sponsor, has not only made an incredible financial contribution, but has also helped with other needs throughout race planning. We hope that everyone supports those who have supported us. … We had the biggest inaugural race NEA has ever had. Now the challenge is we need to do that again.”

Part of what made last year’s inaugural NEA race so successful was the myriad of events that went along with it. This year, organizers have added even more components to the festivities.

The Friday night before the race, April 27, will kick off with a Pink Pasta Party from 6-8 p.m. at St. Bernards Auditorium. The party will include a pasta buffet, live music by Arkansas Brothers and other family-friendly entertainment. Cooper says the festivities at St. Bernards Auditorium will be followed by the addition of the Pink Prowl in Downtown Jonesboro. All downtown restaurants and bars are participating in the prowl, which will take place from 8-10 p.m. Participating businesses will offer happy hour pricing and other specials to those who have purchased a $5 wristband to benefit the NEA Race for the Cure. The highly anticipated return of the men’s Walk a Mile in HER Shoes will take place at 8:30, also downtown. JETS buses will run back and forth between the two areas.

The morning of the race, there will be a Survivor Breakfast at 7 and a Survivor Parade at 8.

“We have an additional raffle this year,” said Isaacson. “Sissy’s has donated a very generous gift certificate, and Bad Boy Mowers has donated a mower – it will actually be the pace car for the men’s race in heels.

“We also have a signature art piece this year, which was commissioned from Evan Lindquist. He has graciously agreed to be our artist this year, and we so appreciate him doing that for us.”

From returning volunteers and committee members to the BigWigs and everyone at A-State, the co-chairs agree that the event wouldn’t be possible without the tireless support of so many in NEA.

“I’ve learned that everyone has been or will be touched by breast cancer,” said Cooper. “It’s comforting to know that by supporting the race you can make a real difference for that person you love, whether it’s a co-worker, friend, family member or even yourself.”

The 2018 Race for the Cure will be held on April 28 at Centennial Bank Stadium on the Arkansas State University campus. Registration and packet pickup will open at 6:30 that morning, and the race will begin at 9. For more information about the 2018 Northeast Arkansas Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, visit arkansas.info-komen.org.