By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – Cancer, heart disease and diabetes are decidedly not fun.
But for 15 years and counting, the Festival of Hope has brought folks together to celebrate their efforts to help people fight the three diseases that touch nearly every family across the region in some form or fashion.
“It’s everywhere,” said Steve Miller, who was among the core group who created the festival’s parent organization, Project Hope.
Over the years, Festival of Hope has raised more than $900,000 that has gone to assist cancer, heart disease and diabetes patients in need, fund community education programs and scholarships for students who have been touched by the diseases or intend to pursue a health care career.
“It all stays in our community,” said Liz Dawson, 2014 Festival of Hope chairwoman, with funds distributed through a competitive grant process for organizations and scholarship application for the students.
This year, Festival of Hope aims to tap into the luck of the Irish and raise plenty of green to fund the grant and scholarship programs with its “A Bit o’ Hope” theme. The event will feature music with DJ Steve Miller, group dances and children’s activities. Hamburger plates will be available for $5.
“It’s a fun night to celebrate the year-long work (the team’s have done) fundraising,” Dawson said.
While it won’t be an official battle of the badges, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office and Tupelo Fire Department plan to bring some special entertainment for the evening.
“They are pumped,” Dawson said.
It’s the opportunity to help the fight at home that keeps bringing teams back year after year.
“It’s a great way to help people in our area,” said Kim Wright, who has participated in Festival of Hope for about 10 years and serves as co-captain for the NMMC emergency department team.
When Wright attended her first Festival of Hope, the cause resonated because of her work as a nurse and because she lost a grandparent to diabetes and another to cancer. Now, it’s even more personal because she’s a cancer survivor herself.
“It just affects so many people,” she said.
Before the first Festival of Hope was held in 2000, a small group came together with the need to help folks locally.
“We saw a need in the community,” said Miller, one of the founding committee members.
The very first Festival of Hope did not start well. Storms rolled in. Teams and organizers had hours to move everything from the NMMC community track next to the Wellness Center to Gloster Creek Village.
But the festival was success that kept folks coming back. Through the years, the event has traveled across Tupelo, visiting the Tupelo Furniture Market, First United Methodist Church and the NMMC track.
“We’ve had to be flexible through the years,” Dawson said.
The festival has pulled its annual themes from obscure holidays, Dr. Seuss, fairy tales and classic movies.
“I think my favorite was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” Dawson said. “We had a big set, we hid the Spunk Monkees (band) behind it.”
Out of the core group that formed Project Hope, only Hank Boerner, who died unexpectedly in December 2012, is missing. This year’s festival is the first he hasn’t had a hand in planning, and his presence is still missed.
“He was our best cheerleader,” Miller said, fondly remembering the crazy games Boerner was known for.
Helping those in need
All 15 years, Project Hope has provided support to North Mississippi Medical Center patient assistance funds for cancer, diabetes and heart disease and the Good Samaritan Free Clinic.
The Festival of Hope funds have made a huge difference for the Good Samaritan Clinic and its patients, especially diabetes patients, said director Cindy Sparks.
The clinic has been able to provide medications, meters and test strips which are critical health management tools for working Lee County residents who can’t afford health insurance.
“They came along at just the right time,” Sparks said.
Project Hope has been a vital source of funding for the NMMC Heart Patient Assistance Fund, said NMMC Heart Institute administrator George Hand.
“It helped get the fun off the ground,” Hand said.
The heart patient assistance fund assists with medication and precise scales that congestive heart failure patients need to monitor fluid retention.
“They could gain several pounds in a day in retained fluid,” Hand said.
If it’s caught early, heart failure patients can often prevent readmission.
“Anytime we can keep someone with CHF from being readmitted, we’ve helped them,” Hand said.