Gilda’s Toronto is thrilled to announce that one of our staff members, Elana Shapiro, our fundraising manager, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization. We sat down with Elana recently to find out why she loves her job.
Gilda’s Toronto: Wow, 20 years! That’s quite a milestone! How do you feel?
Elana: “Wonderful! I truly love what I do. I always had it in me to help others. I feel so strongly that we truly do make a difference in the lives of those impacted by cancer.”
How did you get your start?
As a fundraising student at Ryerson (renamed Toronto Metropolitan University), our final assignment was interviewing an executive director at a charity. My friend, who helped with marketing at Gilda’s Toronto said, “You should interview Maryann at Gilda’s Toronto – it’s a great organization.” I got an A+ in the course, and my professor said, “You seem so passionate about this organization. It sounds like an organization you’ll eventually want to work for.’
When I first applied to Gilda’s Toronto, I lost out to someone with more experience. Later, when it didn’t work out with that person, I learned that the staff loved my passion, so they called me back and offered me the job.
It sounds like you were meant to be here. Of course, I had to call my professor to let him know! He felt it was a perfect fit. What keeps you going?
“I genuinely believe in the mission. It resonates with me. I love working in a small organization because you are exposed to everything. It’s challenging but so exciting. I believe we have an incredible team. In fundraising, you get more nos than yeses, so the yeses feel great. Nobody owes you money; they don’t have to give, and so we are grateful for every gift, regardless of size.”
What makes Gilda’s Toronto so important to you?
People need psychosocial support mental and emotional support combined when they have a cancer diagnosis; we provide that in a timely fashion. When I call donors to thank them for their gifts, I often speak to Gilda’s participants who tell me why they gave. I get to hear firsthand the positive impact we have on people who use our services. That is so powerful. I can see that we make a difference. I’m a positive person, and this fills my glass even higher.
What do you bring to the team?
My strengths are my attention to detail and consistently positive outlook. I find so many reasons to celebrate in my work. Both of these attributes have positive long-term effects. At Gilda’s Toronto, we have created a culture of philanthropy, and part of that is letting people know that their $25 matters. Whatever the amount, they have made a difference, and they often donate again after I speak with them and share how important they are and how they are directly supporting others. Everyone feels valued.
There is always a story when I call to thank. Years ago, one young member said, “While the medical system made sure I lived, Gilda’s Toronto gave me my life back.” We need the medical system for diagnosis and treatment. Still, we also need the support that Gilda’s Toronto offers because, over the years, I have seen just how debilitating the mental health challenge of cancer is.
And we don’t just help the person with cancer. We also know the impact on other family members. Parents even tell us that teachers notice the changes in kids once they have participated in our Teen Talk program. There is a trickle effect.
What’s it like to work at Gilda’s Toronto?
“I feel so privileged to know that I am part of a team that can fulfill our vision: to help people live, while living with cancer. Our team is filled with people with a wide variety of expertise and personalities. What makes it work is the fantastic level of respect.
So much of what I do is about creating relationships and building community. The donors make our programs possible to help people get the support they need to improve their quality of life while facing cancer. I get to share that impact, and by doing that, I get to build this incredible community of support. That’s why I’ve been here for as long as I have.
I genuinely love hearing the donors’ stories.”
Tell me some of the stories that have touched you.
It’s hard to pick just a few stories, but I remember that at one Variety Show fundraiser, a woman in her late 30s was supposed to give a testimonial, but as the date approached, we learned that she was in palliative care. We said she didn’t have to come and speak, but she insisted. She stood with her 7-year-old boy and told a room of 500+ people what a difference Gilda’s Toronto had made in her life. She died two weeks later. Her husband had been reluctant to participate in the caregiver’s group, but once he did, he wished he had started it sooner.
There’s also another very moving story. A young woman in her late 20s was told she didn’t need specific tests because she was too young to have cancer. She persisted, got the tests, and learned she had a rare form of stage 4 cancer. Naturally, she was devastated, but she was determined to survive. She found the support groups extraordinarily beneficial and last year was one of our top fundraisers for our annual waterfront marathon run. As she said, “I’m telling cancer who’s boss!”
We also find that sometimes teens are convinced they don’t need what Gilda’s Toronto can provide. Many parents have commented that their kids vigorously argued that they didn’t need help. Once they got in the door or on the Zoom, everything changed. They became the first ones to arrive, sometimes 10 minutes early. They made friends who understood what they were experiencing because they were living it too. Gilda’s Toronto truly mattered to them and helped so much.
Many of you know Elana from the waterfront run, monthly donations, the golf tournament or just a friendly voice on the phone over the years.
We’d love to hear your stories about Elana. You can also join us in celebrating Elana’s 20 years by donating in her honour. Click here to contribute.