Pink Ribbons and Polio

No doubt you have seen the pink ribbons everywhere recently. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and this actually came about because of Nancy Brinker. But before we talk about her, I want to go back to Eleanor Goodman, the mother of Nancy and her sister, Suzy. Eleanor is this week’s “woman of courage.”

Back in the summer of 1952, the polio epidemic was spreading around the United States. Many of us do not remember this because we were not alive. Polio is a mere footnote in most history books thanks to the March of Dimes and the vaccine created by Jonas Salk. But back then, everyone knew about polio-myelitis. In 1952 in the United States, 58,000 people became sick with polio. More than 3,000 people died, and another 21,000 were left seriously disabled. So what do polio and 1952 have to do with pink ribbons and breast cancer? Eleanor Goodman.

In her recent book “Promise Me,” Nancy Brinker recalls the summer of 1952 and how her mother, Eleanor, an incredible do-gooder involved in countless charities and good works, took the opportunity to raise money for the “cause” – scientists working on the polio vaccine – and fully believed that everyone could do his/her own little part to make a difference.

Brinker describes her mother as a woman who would do all the little things for others, such as taking food to those who were sick, providing clean diapers for new mothers, and weeding a neighbor’s flowerbed. Basically Eleanor was known for doing anything she could to lighten the load of the people around her.

One day during the summer of ’52, Eleanor was driving meals around to families affected by polio. She took her two girls, Suzy (age eight) and Nancy (age five) with her in the family station wagon, and they became bored while running the meals around. After doing a bit of complaining, Eleanor stopped the station wagon and calmly ordered them out.

Standing in the blazing sun, Eleanor said this:

“People have died for this country. People have sacrificed their lives so you could live in peace and freedom, and all that’s asked of you is that you take care of it. Stewardship. That’s all. You care enough about your community to look after those who aren’t as fortunate as you. When you see someone in need, you give. When you see something wrong, you fix it. Because this is your country, it’s your community. You can’t sit around on your duff waiting for someone else to make it better. It’s up to you. If you girls devoted half the energy you use complaining and bickering to actually doing something for somebody else, I think you’d be amazed at what you can accomplish. So can I count on you? Are you willing to be good stewards for your country? Because I’ll tell you right now, you’re not getting back in that car until I hear you say it. Both of you.”

That evening, while lying in bed, Suzy came up with an idea – a neighborhood talent show where the kids would perform and the parents would buy tickets to attend – and they would donate the money to polio research. Nancy and Suzy followed through and raised $50.14 that they took to their neighborhood children’s hospital. And from that moment, the two were bound together working for a cause.

It would be 25 years years before Suzy was diagnosed with breast cancer. As Nancy stood by her side during her battle, she ended up making Suzy a promise – that she would spend her life working on finding a cure. Suzy lost her battle just 3 years later at age 36, but the Susan G. Komen foundation was born two years after, and decades later, Brinker has not only successfully raised money for cancer research, but also made it so that we spend an entire month as a country focusing on women affected by the illness. Pink ribbons everywhere.

You see, Brinker was a pioneer of the “cause-related marketing” industry by establishing the color pink as the iconic representation for breast cancer. Today, almost 300 global and national companies are Komen sponsors, providing funding to help fulfill the organization’s promise to save lives and end breast cancer forever.

Brinker may be the name now that is recognized, but she became who she was largely because of Eleanor Goodman and the summer of 1952.

Jesus spoke similarly of how we take care of others in a parable he told his followers in Matthew 25:

31” When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.34″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44″They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45″He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46”Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Jesus is challenging his followers just like Eleanor Goodman challenged her daughters to be good stewards and to care about others. Jesus goes one step further in stating that the way we treat others is equivalent to the way we treat HIM. Wow. That’s a big challenge.

When you see the pink ribbons around this month, think about Nancy and Suzy and Eleanor. And also think about Jesus. Think about how you are being a steward of your resources to help others. Become a woman of courage yourself. You never know what kind of movement you might be able to start for those in need.

– Wendy Chinn

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