Bittersweet triumph

When Kevin Shimp was asked to become a candidate for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Virginia Chapter Man of the Year, his initial reaction was that he could not possibly say yes.

Not only was he working 50-hour weeks during the March-to-May campaign period, but the busy father of two teenagers was also attending graduate school full-time.

Becoming a candidate meant he would take on the equivalent of another part-time job for 10 weeks to raise funds for blood cancer research.

At the same time, however, that Shimp’s rational inner voice was telling him he could never fit such a task into his already-packed schedule, a louder voice was telling him there was no way he could say no.

As a clinical coordinator on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at VCU Health Systems, Shimp says, “I see the effects of leukemia and lymphoma on a daily basis.” 

His wife, Jill, a pediatric hematology/oncology nurse at VCU, cares for patients that often end up in his transplant unit.

But the clincher for Shimp was that his father-in-law, Billy Snead, had been diagnosed with leukemia three years earlier.

And so, Shimp’s heart won out over reason, and he found himself saying yes.

A resident of the Shenandoah community near Willow Lawn, he was soon ringing his neighbors’ doorbells and asking for contributions.

“The feedback is incredible,” Shimp says. “The people that you meet and get a chance to talk to. . . People would hand me money at bake sales in honor of their friends, parents, and siblings.”

At one neighbor’s door, he was met with a “no soliciting” – but just two days later, the same neighbor dropped a check in his mailbox.

And within seconds of sending out his first email request for donations, Shimp received a pledge of support from a co-worker.

Shimp also organized benefit nights at local restaurants and The Byrd Theatre, asked for auction items and solicited corporate sponsorships in addition to donations from friends and family. He appreciated that many businesses were especially generous despite the tough economic times.

“I realize there are a bunch of causes,” he says, “but the response you get is unpredictable and overwhelming. Chuck Irving from Charles Irving Construction set me up with bowling leagues to get donations, and talked about [the campaign] as much as I think I did.”  

Stepping up
Then, midway through the campaign, Shimp lost his father. John Shimp – the first family member who had responded to Kevin’s fundraising e-mail – passed away of complications from diabetes.

As if all the other challenges in his life hadn’t been enough, Shimp now had to bear this additional crushing burden of grief. But he packed up his family and headed to New Jersey for a week to deal with funeral arrangements and help his mother through the loss of her husband of 47 years.

Upon his return to Richmond, says sister-in-law Sande Snead, he plunged “into yet another fundraiser – just two days after burying his father.”

Shimp says now that he could not have made it the rest of the way through the campaign without the support of Jill and other key supporters -- among them his mother-in-law Evelyn Snead, former LLS Woman of the Year Susan Reid, and Emily Tucker, a retiree from Media General.

What’s more, he says, “my boss Pattie Viscardi graciously looked the other way when I was doing things on the job.”

He notes that before his father took ill, he had planned to set up a booth at the annual Easter Parade in Richmond and use it to sell sock monkeys and raise awareness for the cause. Abandoning the idea to head to New Jersey, he says he got a call en route from Forrest Sprouse, a Henrico H.S. IB freshman. (Shimp’s daughter Casey is in the IB program; his son Logan attends Tuckahoe M.S.).

“[Sprouse] said, ‘I know where you keep your key,’” Shimp recalls. “‘What time and where do I need to be on Easter Sunday to run your table for you?’  

“He raised money that day,” says Shimp, “but more importantly he just did what good people do every day and don’t get recognized for it – he stepped up.”

Ups and downs
On May 13, at the gala culminating the annual campaign, Shimp learned that he had been the top male fundraiser – earning the title of 2011 Man of the Year for the Virginia Chapter of LLS.

It was a bittersweet moment for Shimp and his family, as he shared the sad news with the crowd of well-wishers that his father-in-law’s leukemia is no longer in remission.

In another sad and ironic twist, it turns out that the 2011 Young Lady of the Year – one of the blood cancer survivors that the annual campaign honors – has become one of his patients.

Although Allison Rippy was declared cancer-free last fall after five months of chemotherapy, her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma resurfaced in January.

But there were lighter moments at the gala, too, as Sande Snead points out.

“In an overzealous effort to raise funds for the cause,” says Snead, “my family actually outbid each other for a week at our own beach house at the fundraising auction.” 

And while Shimp’s schedule has eased in the months following the campaign, he has no plans to rest on his Man of the Year laurels. Raising awareness of LLS has become a part of him.

Although cancer is no longer the taboo subject it once was, he believes there needs be much more openness about the disease.

“Getting donations was nice, and proved to be successful for my campaign,” Shimp says. “But the key is for that same person to tell 10 people they donated to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and why.

“We need to be comfortable discussing [cancer] so that we can feel like its downfall is possible.”  

Citing the list of supporters that ranges from his wife to his boss to students like Sprouse, he adds, “One thing something like this teaches you is that almost everything is bigger then you are, and doing your piece to make it better for someone else is just an awesome feeling on a daily basis.  

“And I had inspiration around me at all times.”

For details about the Virginia Chapter of LLS, visit http://lls.org/aboutlls/chapters/va.
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