Festival of Hope honors the good fight against diabetes, heart disease and cancer

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Project Hope is more than a good cause for Rhonda Saunders. It’s personal for the NMMC Baldwyn Nursing facility administrator, who is serving as the honorary chairwoman for the annual Festival of Hope. The event raises money for the fight against heart disease, diabetes and cancer. She survived a heart attack in June at the age of 47.
“I’ve been given an opportunity to give back,” Saunders said. “I was a lucky one.”
On April 6, the 14th Festival of Hope will celebrate survivors like Saunders and the hard work of nearly 20 teams from around the community with a relaxed, picnic-themed event.
“It is something everyone has been affected by in one way or another,” said festival chairwoman Christy Miller. “The more money we raise, the more people we can help.”
Teams often work year round, hosting lunches, sales and events to benefit those fighting diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The money is distributed through a grant program to assist needy patients and to hold public education events.
Past grant recipients have included NMMC Patient Assistance Funds for diabetes, cancer and heart disease, local free clinics, the Weston Reed Foundation and Camp Hopewell.
Project Hope also has been able to provide small scholarships for students directly affected by diabetes, cancer and heart disease or who intend pursue careers related to assisting patients with the diseases.
Saturday fun
After 13 years of Friday nights, the festival is moving to Saturday evening to allow more participants from outside Tupelo to join the celebration.
“We wanted to have something more relaxed,” Miller said.
This year, the event will feature some shopping as well as musical entertainment and family-friendly activities. Survivors will be honored during the opening ceremonies around 5 p.m.
“I’m excited about it,” Miller said.
The celebration isn’t limited to team members, their families and survivors of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
“The public can join in the celebration,” Miller said.
There will also be a short memorial to Hank Boerner, a founding member of Project Hope who died suddenly in December.
Close call
Saunders’s June 7 heart attack grabbed her attention.
As she was getting ready to leave her Tupelo home for her work in Baldwyn, she started sweating profusely.
“Then it grabbed my heart,” Saunders said. “I couldn’t get enough air.”
She sat on the side of the bed, waiting for her husband, Thom, to get out of the shower. He helped her get dressed and drove her to the emergency department at NMMC.
“After I had my heart attack, I started seeing the ads” for the “Dial, Don’t Drive” campaign, which encourages people to call 911 if they suspect a heart attack because protocols are in place across the state to identify and treat patients rapidly.
At the ER, doctors quickly confirmed Saunders was indeed having a heart attack and quickly moved to unblock her clogged coronary arteries.
“I had angioplasty and was in critical care by 9:15 that morning,” less than two hours after the symptoms started, Sanders said.
Because of an aspirin allergy, Sanders had to wait to have stents – tiny mesh tubes – placed in her arteries to keep them from reclosing. After working through all the issues with her medical team, she’s doing well. She makes exercise a priority, has changed what she eats and makes sure to take her medicine precisely.
“I’ve learned to know what to worry about and what not to worry about,” Saunders said.
Saunders’ experience in part inspired the Baldwyn Nursing Facility to form a team for Project Hope.
“They’re excited to have a team,” Saunders said.
Charge nurse Amanda Meeks and dietary manager Katrina Cotes have teamed up to plan blue jean Fridays, special meals and a book swap/sale.
“The money gets to go to Project Hope,” Saunders said. “It’s special because I get to be here.”

Chillin’ and Grillin’
• 4 p.m. April 6, Tupelo Furniture Market.
• No admission fee; open to public. Hamburger plates are $5, free to team members and registered survivors. Inflatibles for children, $5 armband for the evening.
• Entertainment includes local oldies band “Dusty Vinyl.”
• Shopping: Vendors who have confirmed include Arbonne, Beauticontrol, All That Glitters, Stencil Station and Batty Box.

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