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  • By Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Pink sponsorship ribbons are part of Sonia Susac's fundraising effort. She said the temporary rift between the Komen organization and Planned Parenthood made it harder to solicit donations.

  • By Lezlie Sterling / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Lezlie Sterling lsterling@sacbee.com Cancer survivor Sonia Susac, left, and Jordan Mark make ribbons in honor of Genie Mark, Jordan's mother and Susac's best friend, who died of breast cancer two months ago. The ribbons are for sponsors who donate to the Komen Race for the Cure.

Amid Komen group controversy, registration drops for Sacramento's Race for the Cure

Published: Friday, Apr. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 29, 2012 - 11:21 am

With her pink ribbons and can-do attitude, Sonia Susac raised $40,000 last year to become one of the leading fundraisers for the annual Komen Race for the Cure in the Sacramento Valley.

Not this year. Susac, a breast cancer survivor, said she likely would raise half that amount for the May 12 race.

"I'm reluctant to ask for support because I'm afraid of people's reactions," said Susac, who is 45 and lives in Sacramento. "I wish people would focus on all the good the race does."

Fewer Sacramentans are racing for a cure in the wake of a controversy that erupted earlier this year.

Officials for the national Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization decided in December to stop financing Planned Parenthood, which provides health services to women that include breast cancer screening and education, as well as contraception and abortion. After news of the change became public in late January, critics charged that Komen had been influenced by anti-abortion advocates on its staff and was playing politics with women's health.

Stung by public outcry, Komen later reversed course, restoring the Planned Parenthood funding, and several staff members have since resigned. But the fallout continues.

Registration for the Komen Race for the Cure in the Sacramento region is down 36 percent, one of the largest registration decreases among Komen affiliates nationally and the steepest drop for the local affiliate in five years.

Some former Sacramento-area participants say they are no longer comfortable supporting the organization and are donating to other breast cancer causes instead. Komen supporters counter that dropping out of the race hurts women.

"People should think of the cause, not the name," said Isabel Dominguez, a breast cancer survivor who plans to run the race for the third time in honor of her mother.

Many of those who ran beside Dominguez last year will not be there for this year's race, scheduled for May 12. Last year at this time, 10,074 runners were registered for the Sacramento race. This year, 6,392 participants have signed up, according to local Komen officials.

The race, which starts and ends at Cal Expo, will be the first Sacramento Race for the Cure since Komen came under fire for its decision to pull Planned Parenthood's funding.

Komen holds 135 races across the country every year. Eleven runs have been staged so far this year, and several have seen a decline in participation. Fort Worth registration reportedly dropped 23 percent, and participation in Baton Rouge, La., fell 10 percent. St. Louis, which has its race in June, has seen an increase of 1,000 runners.

"We're seeing a dip in some places, but overall I think it's a mix," said Leslie Aun, a national spokeswoman for Komen. "For awhile it looked as if we were going to be down sharply, but we're beginning to see that trend turn around."

It is too soon to know if Komen's other local fundraising efforts will be affected, said Sylvia Ramirez, events manager for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure Sacramento Valley Affiliate.

"This is our signature fundraiser, and all of our efforts right now are focused on this," she said.

Komen officials in California did not support the decision by national leaders to discontinue grants to Planned Parenthood.

"That said, the backlash has been significant. As an affiliate, we are saddened, disappointed and even confused," read a Feb. 9 letter to community leaders from Kristen Kirkpatrick, director of development for the Komen Sacramento affiliate.

The local affiliate has not given grants to Planned Parenthood for the past two years because the agency has not applied for one, according to Ramirez. The last grant Planned Parenthood received from Komen locally was in 2010 for $21,715, she said. Ramirez said that money was used for educational purposes only.

Officials with Planned Parenthood in Sacramento declined to comment.

Last year, 18,899 runners participated in either the 5K race or one-mile walk for the Komen Race for the Cure in the Sacramento area. In general, participation has gradually declined over the past five years, from a peak of 24,148 in 2007. Organizers said they believe the fall-off in recent years was likely because of the economy. The fee for an adult to run the race is $40; to walk is $35.

But this year's drop is the steepest, and supporters acknowledge that the controversy had an impact. They worry that the decrease in participants – and the funds they raise – will hurt local breast cancer groups and patients.

"Not participating is not a pro-life or pro-choice decision," said Ramirez. "What they are doing is hurting women in our community."

Seventy-five percent of the money raised at the Komen race goes toward breast cancer prevention in 19 counties in the Sacramento region, said Melen Vue, mission manager for the Sacramento Valley's Susan G. Komen affiliate.

Last year, Komen gave $1.2 million to 19 local community-based organizations, clinics and hospitals for breast cancer screening, diagnosis and support services, according to Vue.

Support among corporate sponsors has stayed strong, according to Komen officials. No local corporate sponsor has withdrawn support from the race.

Raley's is the largest local sponsor of the Sacramento race and has promoted the event at all its stores. Officials with the grocery chain said they were surprised to learn of the drop in registrants.

"It's really disappointing, because the amount of women who need breast cancer treatment hasn't dropped off," said Jenny Teel-Wolter, community relations manager. She said the company would step up efforts to increase registration.

Jan Treat, 73, is one of several women who said they are donating their money to other breast cancer groups. Treat has supported Komen in the past and has participated in the race. But she said she is now donating her money and time to Sacramento Save Ourselves, a breast cancer support group.

"I'd rather spend my money to help women after they are diagnosed than on a (pink) campaign," Treat said. "It's totally understandable why people are staying away and now Komen has egg on its face. Their politics just don't cut it for me."

What the fallout will be in the long term is still to be determined, said one official with a charity watchdog organization.

"It will be interesting to see if and by how much their revenue goes down in future years as a result of this," said Laurie Styron, an analyst with CharityWatch. "They put themselves in a difficult position and have alienated people on both sides of the abortion issue."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jennifer Garza



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