~ Contributed by Andrea Cleghorn
Three Bedford women will be taking a detour from their regular routines on the night of Oct. 14 to walk the runway at the Westin Seaport as fashion models with a cause. All three raised their kids here, all have been active volunteers in town, and each one has survived breast cancer.
Jenn Puhle, Kristin Ferrari, and Melissa Brandt, along with 101 other models, will be glammed up by professional hairdressers and makeup artists and come dancing and probably singing to the music at the 16th annual Runway for Recovery benefit that provides substantial help for families who have suffered from the same disease.
They will be wearing clothes loaned by stores in nearby Concord such as Sara Campbell, French Lessons, and Fritz & Gigi on Main Street, because, yes, their kids are invited to join them. Jewelry is provided by both Kendra Scott and Erin McDermott. Puhle’s son Caleb will be in the crowd this year. Ferrari’s daughter Emma is a runway veteran, and son Alex walked with her last year. Brandt said next year she will have both her daughters Georgia and Corinne with her, one on each arm
The three women’s cancer sagas differ. Brandt had a genetic mutation on both sides of her family and elected to have both a mastectomy and hysterectomy two years ago, a decision that makes her a “previvor.” In this case, the term is used to describe an individual who decides she – or he – has evidence enough to take that strong preemptive move. She is glad she knew. “Early detection saves lives. I have a desire to bring awareness to hereditary cancer and to speak up the need for genetic testing. It can be tricky finding our place within the breast cancer community,” she said.
Another had no family history of the disease at all, so she was in shock to get the diagnosis 10 years ago during a routine exam as she was turning 40. She had surgery and has walked the runway several times, including once with her son.
Puhle is the most recent survivor. She received the diagnosis just a year ago, in July of 2021, and had a double mastectomy and reconstruction by the end of the summer. She is still in physical therapy and admits it has been a very tough time.
“I look at women’s faces in the pictures from past years and I’m not smiling like that [in those pictures]yet. I want to be back to my old, extroverted self because that’s who I truly am. I think being around the energy of Runway will help me find that again,” she said.
All three women agree that one of the primary needs is a sense of connection and support, the runway surrounded by cheering family members, friends, and complete strangers who are there to support them. The models’ photos and stories are writ large on screens. The music accompanying them is loud and brave.
Runway founder and Executive Director Olivia Achtmeyer Boger said that she began Runway for Recovery to provide help to families who were shattered by loss due to breast cancer. The children of victims, and typically the dads who struggle with caring for a loved one in treatment or the family in turmoil when the mom is ill, though of course men do get breast cancer as well. Boger lost her own mother, Cande Achtmeyer, to breast cancer. To honor her memory, she put together what would become an annual October event to raise funds for the families. October was Cande’s birthday month, coincidentally also Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
For the first 13 years Runway for Recovery went through Tufts and Mass. General Hospital to get referrals to locate families. “For the past three years we’ve done it in-house, she said, “and often partner with hospices and other non-profits. Runway takes applications for family grants making third-party payments to cover rent, provide summer camp, transportation, back-to-school clothes, and extracurricular activities.”
Boger began with 10 models and 70 guests 16 years ago, initially raising a thousand-plus dollars; today the figure is “close to a million with 104 models and 900 people expected.” They still partner with hospices and other non-profits and branch out into other non-runway events during the course of the year. In addition, for the first time, there will be a Runway across the country in Orange County, Calif., on Jan. 28.
For Ferrari, who now serves on the board and reads grant applications, Boger is the “head and the heart” of Runway. “I feel truly honored to be part of this organization,” she said.