| The Fly for Hope Council engages racing pigeon clubs and their members to raise funds for City of Hope|
Lori Wilson had no idea that bird feed would help transform her life.
Wilson’s job as a sales representative for Ceres, Calif.-based Volkman Seed Factory, which makes feed for pigeons and other birds, brought her in touch with Joanne Ling, a now-retired City of Hope development staff member.
Ling attended pigeon-racing events around California to support and promote Fly for Hope, a group of pigeon enthusiasts who engage with racing pigeon clubs and their members to raise funds for City of Hope. After Ling introduced Wilson to Fly for Hope, she decided to volunteer for the group and was selected to be on its council.
“I’d never given cancer much consideration prior to meeting Joanne, but have always volunteered my time to worthwhile causes,” Wilson said.
“The irony is, I was diagnosed about a year later with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and now I’m a member of the cancer community,” said Wilson, who is a patient at City of Hope.
The Fly for Hope council was established in 1990 by five pigeon racers: Bob DiClemente, Larry Cook, Vic Debrouwer, Al Cunningham and Philip Adsit. The men wanted to promote pigeon racing and recruit new members, but they also were looking for a charitable cause to promote.
Former council member Jim Vander Heide recalled: “A friend of Bob’s was being treated at City of Hope. Bob was so impressed with the treatment his friend received that he was inspired to organize the Fly for Hope council and support City of Hope as its official charity.”
Vander Heide and his wife, Judy Vander Heide, already were familiar with City of Hope when they became part of the Fly for Hope program in 1996. Their late son was treated at City of Hope in 1995 for acute lymphocytic leukemia, spurring them to volunteer.
Fly for Hope is part of the California State Racing Pigeon Organization (CSRPO). The CSRPO has 68 clubs with more than 1,000 members. Fly for Hope engages with the clubs to get them to donate part of any funds they raise to City of Hope.
Stan Hullender, co-chair of Fly for Hope, explained that monies are raised from special races, pigeon shows and sales, with all proceeds going to City of Hope. Many members also give personal donations.
“For lots of people in the club, it becomes personal, myself included,” said Hullender. Both of his parents died from cancer.
Jim Vander Heide recalled fundraising events, such as auctions, that have rallied significant support. “Those were outstanding experiences — the camaraderie we had in organizing and putting together the auctions and then the response of the pigeon community as far as supporting them,” he said. “Birds were donated by the most famous flyers in the U.S. and put up for auction.”
Many flyers began their hobby when they were young, and Gary Berthiaume, immediate past chair of the Fly for Hope council, was no different.
“A lot of kids like me were introduced to pigeons after World War II,” he said. “When the war ended, the American military signal corps had all these pigeons that had been used as messengers. The military were selling pigeons to whoever wanted them for $6 a crate. All across America, pigeons made their way into neighborhoods. We had neighbors that had pigeons purchased from the military sales.
“When we moved from Massachusetts, our house was on a few acres in the Antelope Valley and my dad got chickens, pigs and pigeons from a neighbor. I took a keen interest in the pigeons. By the time I was 13, I joined the local racing pigeon club and have enjoyed racing and having pigeons as pets ever since.”
Larry Cook approached Berthiaume about the Fly for Hope program. Each council member belongs to a local club, so Cook gave Berthiaume literature from City of Hope to take back to the other members at the Bakersfield Racing Pigeons club.
“It just spun off from there that people started thinking of ways that we could make a contribution,” Berthiaume said.
Fly for Hope members statewide meet every June at City of Hope’s Duarte, Calif., campus. In 2010, the group surpassed the $1 million mark in total donations. The group is enthusiastically working toward its second million-dollar contribution but, like many other organizations, it has run into fundraising challenges due to tough economic times. Wilson and other group members are committed to supporting cancer research despite the downturn.
“It’s extremely crucial that we continue to monetarily support City of Hope and the research teams in discovering cancer cures,” Wilson said. “It is of paramount importance that we remain focused; lives depend on it.”