Different leader, same mission

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Sharon Simmons (left), who helped found the mobile mammography unit Francine’s Friends, has retired as board president after 13 years. Marita Dwight-Smith has been hired to lead the program as executive director.

Bridgett Hernandez

By Bridgett Hernandez

bhernandez@kpcmedia.com

A new face is leading Francine’s Friends, a local volunteer organization that began busting barriers to breast cancer screenings in northeast Indiana 13 years ago.

After Francine Shubert lost her battle with breast cancer in 2002, several of her friends set out to honor her by providing a lifesaving service to women. In 2005, a mobile mammography unit was established and the coach hit the road for the first time. The program provides mammograms to those who might not have access due to lack of insurance, funds, transportation or other barriers.

Earlier this year, Sharon Simmons, who has led the program as board president since its inception, announced that she will retire and that the organization’s longtime partner, Parkview Health, hired an executive director to lead the program into the future.

Strong partner

The change will ensure the program’s longevity, Simmons said. When she helped found the organization, she never imagined that it would grow the way it did – thanks to the hard work of volunteers and community support.

For more than a decade, the organization’s headquarters was her dining room. Francine’s Friends didn’t have a paid staff or brick and mortar office. A partner like Parkview Health could help sustain the program’s growth, Simmons said.

“It had grown so much, and I really felt like, as volunteers, it was just about as far as we could take the program because we didn’t have a lot of resources, really. What made it so successful was we had the support of the community,” she said.

Parkview Health has long partnered with Francine’s Friends to provide funding for diagnostic testing if required for uninsured and underinsured individuals screened on the coach. Parkview also provided operational support.

“They love the program as much as we do,” she said.

Parkview chose Marita Dwight-Smith to lead Francine’s Friends. Dwight-Smith previously served as the director of the Breast Diagnostic Center, which also partners with Francine’s Friends to provide radiologic technologists to staff the coach, the coach drivers, board certified breast imaging mammography radiologists and maintain the equipment. She also served as a Francine’s Friends board member.

Simmons looks forward to seeing the program’s mission continue with Parkview’s support and Dwight-Smith’s leadership.

“When they named Marita as the executive director, really we couldn’t have picked a better person. It’s who we would have chosen, so we’re excited about that. We cannot wait to see where Marita takes the program,” she said.

Dwight-Smith said she’s grateful for the strong foundation built by Simmons and other volunteers.

“Sharon and the entire Francine’s Friends board has been an inspiration to me over the years. I’ve learned so much from them,” she said.

While the board has disbanded, Simmons and other volunteers make themselves available in an advisory capacity, she said.

“They are very gracious to still assist and advise for anything that I need. I feel like I have a lot of support,” she said.

Looking back

Simmons said it has been a privilege to serve as the board president of Francine’s Friends. She is a cancer survivor herself and said she feels obligated to give back.

“That was the reason for my survivorship, that I could be part of a program that could offer hope and help to other women,” she said.

The program has increased access to mammography in northeast Indiana, often making runs six days a week. The demand is such that the coach is booked out almost a year in advance.

Getting a mammogram on the coach is a unique experience, Simmons said. It’s intimate – you’re the only one on the coach. It’s fast, too – it takes about 15 minutes versus having to take a half day off work to make it to an appointment. Most employers don’t even require employees to clock out for the screening.

If caught at a very early stage, the five-year survival rate for people with breast cancer is close to 100 percent. However, some women are still hesitant to get screened because they’re worried it will be uncomfortable or it won’t be private.

Simmons will never forget encouraging a woman in her 40s to get her first mammogram. It took some convincing, but the woman agreed to the screening. She later found out that the woman had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It made me cry just because that’s why we do what we do. She had no symptoms, she felt fine. She was healthy, she was eating healthy. She was doing the right things. And she had breast cancer. She would have never known. She wouldn’t have gotten a mammogram. We had to talk her into it,” Simmons said.

For more information about Francine’s Friends or to see the coach schedule, visit www.francinesfriends.org.