NEW BERLIN – For the last year, Betsey Baio has worn a gray gel bracelet with the word’s “Team Amy” inscribed in purple as a show of support for Amy Brillinger Pole.
“Her spirit is what has really touched me,” said Baio of the young woman, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in February of 2009.
Pole, a Norwich native, was just 31 when doctors discovered the mass on her brain. Over the last 14 months, she has traveled frequently to the Dana-Farber Clinic in Boston and undergone two surgeries, chemotherapy pills, radiation and a host of experimental treatments in an effort to eradicate what she calls “the blueberry.”
“Not knowing what is going to happen has been the hardest part for me,” said Pole, who says her young son Jack, now 2 1/2, has been her motivation throughout her fight. Her parents, Kathy and Joe Brillinger, her siblings and husband Kevin (her high school sweetheart) have all been beside her every step of the way.
Pole has received support from many of others as well, including her close-knit group of high school friends and co-workers from the Syracuse-area school district where she served as a counselor before her illness. The latter of which engineered an “extreme makeover” to the Pole family’s front and back yards following each of her surgeries.
Her former students have also taken steps to let her know they care, sending unexpected flowers and cards to cheer her up.
“All of those years when I wasn’t sure I was making a difference,” said Pole, who added she has been so touched by their thoughtfulness.
Baio isn’t surprised. She says there is just something about the young woman and the strength and grace she has exhibited throughout her battle that is inspiring, and uplifting, to others. That includes not only acquaintances – like the co-worker of her husband who took it upon herself to have the Team Amy bracelets made – but complete strangers as well.
“It truly is what has helped me get through every single day,” said Pole of the outpouring of support she has received.
Baio and others in Pole’s network of support keep abreast of her progress through frequent updates on a CaringBridge website she created for that purpose. In the beginning, she said it was easier than picking up the phone and relating the latest news to friends and family. But it has become something more.
“It’s so therapeutic for me,” Pole explained.
Her entries are open and honest about the ups and downs of her battle. Without that outlet, her “team” of doctors at Dana-Farber, and the amazing support she has received from her loved ones, friends and even those complete strangers, she said, “I don’t think I’d be where I am.”
Baio is in awe of the way in which Pole’s friends have rallied around her.
“Everyone wishes for a group of friends like she has,” she said.
One of those who stand out is Megan Krouse Mugerwa, a former Norwich High School classmate of Pole’s who currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
“Amy has an incredible spirit. She has waged this battle with extreme strength, courage and grace. Even on the darkest days she seems to find the light – the ‘simple joys’ as she calls them,” said Mugerwa. “She is an inspiration for us all, and I am a better person just for knowing her.”
Over the last two months, she and another of their childhood friends, Kelly Wilson, have put in countless hours organizing Team Amy’s Army – a group of Amy’s supporters who will participate in the Race for Hope in Washington, DC on May 2. The event is one of the largest fundraisers for brain tumor research in the country
It’s not about the time they’ve put in, according to Mugerwa. “It is about doing something for Amy and raising money to find help find a cure,” she said.
When they started planning the effort in March, Mugerwa said their goal was to have 15 walkers and raise $2,500. By April 3, they had already exceeded that amount. After some consideration, they decided to raise the goal – this time to $4,000.
This past weekend, they exceeded that as well.
“We might have to up it again!” Mugerwa said in an excited phone call on Monday. As of this morning, Team Amy’s Army’s fundraising total was $4,115 and still climbing. Baio, who has raised more than $1,000 toward that total, is the team’s top fundraiser.
Those interested in contributing to the cause can do so by visiting the Race for Hope website, www.curebraintumors.org. Simply follow the “Find a Participant” link on the left side of the home page, and search for Team Amy’s Army.
“Every little bit counts,” the team captain said.
According to Mugerwa, 20 walkers are currently registered to be a part of Team Amy’s Army, 15 of whom will be traveling to the DC area specifically to take part in the walk.
“(It’s) truly a testament as to how Amy has touched so many people,” she said. “It’s not too late for people to join us – they just need to sign up by April 27.”
The DC walk is just the tip of the iceberg for Team Amy’s Army’s fundraising efforts. Their next stop will be the Jimmy Fund Walk to be held in Boston on Sept. 12.
The team, which will walk as part of Team Neuro, has set an even loftier goal for this event: $10,000. According to Pole, they will need to reach at least that amount in order to specifically earmark the money they raise. If they can do it, she explained, “every single dollar will be donated to adult brain tumor research.”
It is a cause she says feels passionate about, not because of her own struggle, but because of the prevalence of brain tumors.
“It’s amazing how many young people (develop tumors),” said Pole, explaining that Dana-Farber receives 5 to 10 new referrals each week.
Baio has already started soliciting corporate sponsors for the T-shirts Team Amy’s Army will not only wear in the walk, but sell to raise money as well. This way, she explained, all the money they raise will go directly to the cause.
New York Pizzeria, the New Berlin eatery which Baio owns with her husband Frank, and Agro Farma, makers of Chobani Greek-style yogurt, were the first two companies to step forward as sponsors.
Other fundraising efforts are already being planned for the summer months, including a benefit golf tournament and raffle at Canasawacta Country Club , and the sale of a cook book Pole and Brillinger have been compiling. The book, which the mother and daughter have titled “Cookstrong” in honor to Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong cancer awareness movement, will feature recipes submitted by Pole’s many supporters, each with a memory or statement about their relationship.
Donations may also be made through the Jimmy Fund Walk website, www.jimmyfundwalk.org, by selecting “support a walker” and entering Amy Pole’s name.