Nonprofit helps uninsured and underinsured women in the Central New York area with their financial needs during their cancer treatments
By Mary Beth Roach
“A good life will be a rich one, though not necessarily in monetary forms. It will be one that is rich in friendships, experiences and adventures. It will be one where you give instead of take.”
These words are from Laurie Mezzalingua’s commencement address in 2005 to Manlius Pebble Hill School in Dewitt, her alma mater.
The words also seemed to have guided her life and ignited the spirit in which she created the Saint Agatha Foundation in 2004 to help uninsured and underinsured women in the Central New York area with their financial needs during their cancer treatments.
Mezzalingua, a Manlius native, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. It was while she battled the disease herself, she established the foundation and named it for Saint Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer patients.
Mezzalingua would succumb to cancer in 2009, but her foundation is continuing to help thousands of patients.
According to the organization’s website, www.saintagathafoundation.org, 830 patients had been served in 2019 alone. Over the past decade, it has offered financial assistance to more than 6,750 breast cancer patients by providing grants to hospitals and organizations for more than $12.5 million. Mezzalingua’s mother, Kathy Mezzalingua, serves as president of the foundation board and one of her brothers, Dan, is a member of the board.
Prior to her diagnosis, Mezzalingua had been involved in the Syracuse-based family business, PPC, which manufactures coaxial cable connectors for the cable TV industry globally. The family has since sold that business. Mezzalingua would go on to become president of Kajola Kristada, PPC’s location in St. Kitts, West Indies. (The name of the company came from Kathy, taking the first few letters from her children’s first names: Karen, John, Mezzalingua, Kristen, Tracy and Dan.) Mezzalingua became so involved in various aspects of the life on the island; her family would go on to fund several educational facilities and programs in the island’s capital of Basseterre.
This sense of giving back was evident throughout Mezzalingua’s cancer journey, becoming a devoted advocate for breast cancer patients.
She became president of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and twice chaired its Race for the Cure event. In 2005, she was honored with the National Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Outstanding Volunteer Award in 2005. That same year, she was named Citizen of the Year by Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse.
Kathy Mezzalingua explained that Laurie was frustrated that so many women with breast cancer could not afford the treatments or that their families could only visit them sporadically in the hospital because perhaps they were not able to afford parking or the gas if they were traveling from an outlying county. So after Laurie was released from the hospital following a surgery and while she was still bandaged, Laurie Mezzalingua was on the phone, figuring how to establish the foundation.
“She had so much compassion. She said, ‘I can’t handle this. It’s all consuming for me and these poor women have to worry about how to put the next meal on the table. That can’t happen.’” Kathy said.
“That was Laurie’s mission in life.”
In a quote from the foundation’s website, Laurie Mezzalingua had said, “It breaks my heart to see women dealing with not only the emotional and medical piece of breast cancer, but also the financial stress.”
The organization covers Onondaga, Cortland, Cayuga, Jefferson, Madison, Oneida, and Oswego counties and with limited programs in Chenango and Otsego counties, according to Andrea Rush, from the National Philanthropic Trust, which handles the administrative business of the foundation. She provided some information on how the foundation works.
The foundation does not award cash gifts directly to patients, since that would result in taxable income for them, Rush said, although they sometimes will receive gift cards to grocery stores of for gas. The funds, she added, are used to make payments directly to the providers on behalf of the patients. And the foundation’s website provides a list of partner organizations that can assist patients in receiving financial assistance for their needed care.
Breast cancer, according to the NYS Department of Health, is one of the most common cancers among women in the state. Each year, more than 16,400 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 2,500 women die from the disease. It is estimated that one in eight women will develop breast cancer during her life.
To be able to carry on Laurie Mezzalingua’s legacy is very rewarding, her mother said.
“I think it helped me to withstand her passing. Even when she died, I knew that this was not the end. Her name and her foundation will live on forever, if we can,” she said. With 14 grandchildren, Kathy is hopeful that future generations of the family will become involved and carry on its work.
“If you have breast cancer, you don’t have to panic,” Kathy added. “We’re going to wrap our arms around you and just take care of anything you need. Don’t be afraid. We’ll help you.”
To find out more about the foundation, visit www. Saintagathafoundation.org.