Fairbanks retiree is nation's top fundraiser
March 1, 2018
When Jeff Cook of Fairbanks light heartedly agreed to raise money for the Real Men Wear Pink campaign last fall, he had no idea it would become a driving force in his life and lead to important health awareness for his own family.
Cook, now retired, is the nation's top fundraiser for this American Cancer Society benefit program. In 2017, he topped more than 3,000 Real Men Wear Pink fundraisers in much larger cities. The new retiree raised more than $120,000 for the American Cancer Society, with donations from about 350 supporters who donated from $20 to $6,500. Each of those individual donations helped him become the first winner of this competition in Alaska and in the entire western region.
"Where else can you do that, but Fairbanks," said Cook, a lifelong Fairbanksan.
So many people connected and each donation was heartfelt and showed somebody cared, he said. Donors were not only friends and family but also friends of friends, and friends of family. The most gratifying part of the entire effort was hearing personal stories from others, he added.
The fundraiser also led to him being honored on the floor of the Alaska State Legislature as Alaskan of the Week, by Sen. Dan Sullivan, one day in January. For 12 minutes, the United States senator from Alaska shared Cook's story with the legislative body and all Alaskans.
Cook's daughter Chrissy was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2017. Genetic testing revealed she had a positive match for the BRCA2 gene, which increases the risk of developing breast and/or ovarian cancer. The diagnosis convinced Cook to get his entire family tested for the presence of the gene. The results: five members of his family carry the gene. That doesn't mean they have cancer, but it means they are at a higher risk of developing cancer. They all immediately enrolled in a special monitoring program and he doubled down on raising money for Real Men Wear Pink.
"We couldn't conquer the cancer, but we just had to do something," he said. His modest goal of raising $5,000 for cancer research just kept growing and growing. People started sending money, along with stories of their own loved ones who struggled with cancer. The competitor in him kicked in and by the time it was over, to his own surprise, he held the top spot.
His effort led to greater awareness of breast cancer and also made a significant investment in cancer research, according to Christina Kelly, communications director for the American Cancer Society for Alaska and Washington.
"It's an amazing story," she said. "If you look at his donations, there's $100 here, $200 there. Whatever he said to people, when he personalized it and talked about the BRCA2 gene in his family, people got it."
By the time the contest ended, he was the top fundraiser. The second-highest fundraiser was out of Pittsburgh, with $76,950 and the third-place fundraiser was the CEO of Kroger (parent company of Fred Meyer), who raised $75,535. The 3,106 men who participated in this program all raised $4 million nationwide.
But when the Real Men Wear Pink contest ended, Cook just kept on going. He continued to share his personal story and now works closely with some national advocacy groups.
Breast cancer affects both women and men. The Real Men Wear Pink program invites community leaders to raise awareness and money for the American Cancer Society. Every dollar raised saves lives through early detection and prevention, innovative breast cancer research and patient support.
Cook was honored to travel Outside recently and meet the researcher who discovered the gene responsible for 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancers, leading to advances in research.
"Knowledge is power and people who know about genetic mutation, treatment options and potential for good outcomes will be served if armed with the right knowledge," he said.
"It's an amazing story," said Kelly. "It's even more amazing that he took something that was a family issue - a personal issue - and turned it into a silver lining of saving lives."
Cook gives full credit to all his supporters.
"These are all good-hearted, compassionate people who have a story and want to be part of this," he said. "I am humbled and overwhelmed by the many and generous donors who have supported the Real Men Wear Pink campaign."
Cook also managed to put Fairbanks on the map, due to the community's amazing fundraising for this program. That was just a small and happy bonus for this lifelong Fairbanksan.