When Gina Mulligan was first diagnosed with breast cancer, her mailbox filled up with hundreds of cards and notes from friends and family.
What meant the most to her, however, were the written words from perfect strangers who’d found her through Facebook and church connections.
“You expect your friends and family to support you,” said Mulligan, 47, a petite author and former marketing consultant in Folsom. “But it was letters from strangers that made the biggest impact. … They didn’t have to, but they took up pen and paper to write something encouraging.”
After finishing her cancer treatment in 2011, Mulligan gave back by founding Girls Love Mail, a volunteer effort that collects and sends handwritten, supportive letters to thousands of U.S. women who’ve been newly diagnosed with breast cancer.
The letters, distributed to patients through hospital breast cancer centers, “are a reminder you’re not fighting this alone,” Mulligan said.
In its first year, friends and family who sat at her kitchen table wrote and sent out 4,000 letters. As of this April, the volunteer group has grown to encompass hundreds of letter writers nationwide who collectively have sent out more than 63,000 letters.
Especially in a social media-saturated world, a handwritten letter is powerful, Mulligan says. “It’s tangible. You can hold it. You can prop it up. You can reread it.”
One Girls Love Mail recipient, a year after finishing breast cancer treatment, wrote Mulligan to say how much she cherished the note from Max, an elementary school student. “She said she kept it by her bedside and reread it every night. It made her feel less alone.”
About 2,000 letters come in every month. After each is read and approved, it’s tucked inside a Girls Love Mail envelope, then bundled and sent in packages to hospital-based breast cancer centers, including those at Mercy and Sutter hospitals in the Sacramento region.
Girls Love Mail operates on a paper-thin budget mostly made up of private donations and a small grant from a local chapter of the nonprofit Susan G. Komen breast cancer research and advocacy center. Mulligan operates from a one-room office in a Folsom business park, in space donated by Parcel Quest, her husband’s property data business. With no paid employees, 30 volunteers read and sort the letters. The biggest expense is postage, which runs about $5,000 a year, according to Mulligan.
All letters must be written by hand and addressed to “Dear Friend” or “Dear Sister.” Writers sign their first name and last initial. They can’t use biblical or other religious messages. (Letters that do contain religious references are set aside, waiting until Mulligan can find a faith-based group that supports breast cancer patients.)
On a recent morning, the incoming boxes of letters included arty, handmade cards as well as simple lined paper with color-crayon drawings by school kids. Some writers, like members of book clubs or fraternities, send in batches of letters once a year.
Others, such as Stephanie Jones, a retired Catholic school principal in Sacramento, write daily.
A two-time survivor of breast cancer, Jones said her motivation – two letters every day, more than 3,000 total – comes from the heart.
When Jones got her first cancer diagnosis, “I felt very, very isolated. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone, not even my closest family.” At her oncologist’s office that day, “I would have felt much better, when they gave me the (cancer information) binder, if it had included some words of hope.”
Now 76 and an active community volunteer, Jones said cancer taught her that “every single day contains a beauty if we’ll look for it, find it and celebrate it. That’s what I try to tell each person I write to in my cancer notes.”
Girls Love Mail
What it is: A volunteer group, based in Folsom, that sends handwritten notes of encouragement to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The writers, ranging in age from second-graders to 90-year-olds, write on their own or as part of groups such as sororities and fraternities, Girl Scout troops, Spanish classes and book clubs. Since starting in 2011, it has sent out more than 63,000 letters.
How it works: Letter writers, who sign only their first name and last initial, send their notes to the Girls Love Mail office in Folsom. Volunteers screen the letters for inappropriate language or religious references. The letters are then forwarded to more than 150 breast cancer centers nationwide.
To contact: Go to GirlsLoveMail.com