“Every time I watch that video, still, I get choked up,” Katie Simmons Hickey says softly.
She’s referring to her own fundraising video, created to inspire contributions for her candidacy in this year’s Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Woman of the Year competition. The 10-week annual fundraiser, which concluded last month, raises funds for LLS blood cancer research. Candidates like Hickey competed on behalf of children who are local blood cancer survivors, the Boy and Girl of the Year.
Hickey’s video features the 2014 Girl of the Year, 9-year-old Rylie, known to friends and family simply as “Rue.” During the course of the three-and-a-half-minute video, Rue shares how the most difficult part of being diagnosed with cancer at the tender age of 6 was making friends — “because I was bald ’cause of the chemo and everybody pointed at me and they were just kinda confused. So it was really hard for me to make friends,” she earnestly explains.
It’s the kind of video that, once you see it, you can’t pretend you didn’t. And if you were having a hard time understanding why the work of organizations like LLS is important, it becomes glaringly apparent in the face of a doe-eyed child who just wants to make friends like everybody else.
“I met Rylie at Kick-Off Night and I wasn’t 100 percent committed at that time,” says Hickey, referencing the evening that became a defining factor in her decision to accept her nomination. “Listening to her story from her mom and her dad, her brother and even Rylie, herself, was kind of the icing on the cake. There was no way I was turning back.”
And turn back she did not. “I was in it to win it,” says Hickey. “I’m very competitive by nature. I always have been since I was young. [I thought,] I’m not doing this unless I win it.”
Hickey’s competitive nature came in handy. The National Capital Area Chapter broke records this year, raising over $1.8 million for blood cancer research. Leading the 22 other candidates was Hickey, who took home the title of “LLS Woman of the Year,” raising over a quarter of a million dollars — $277,202.59 to be exact — making her First National Runner-Up.
“The last week I was a nervous wreck because I didn’t think we had it. I was pushing every day, stepping out of my comfort zone asking people for money, asking clients, friends and family,” says Hickey. “I had to step back and remind myself it wasn’t for me, it was for the kids and families.”
The kids and families affected by cancer are, of course, the reason LLS exists. “These kids are the true meaning of inspiration,” says Hickey. “To see them show up [to fundraising events] two days after chemo, smiling.” She trails off. “It was such an inspiration to see.”
It was the thought of the kids and families that kept Hickey going through some of the more grueling moments of the taxing, 10-week fundraising schedule, as well as her own personal reasons. Her best friend, Colleen, has been in remission from cancer for 14 years, and this past October Katie and her husband lost their son, Gabriel.
From this hardship, Hickey mustered strength. “I just knew I couldn’t give up,” she says. “No parent or patient is given that privilege. I’ve seen families go through it. It’s heartbreaking.”
The hours of hard work that Hickey and her team of supporters — including her 3-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter, husband, mother and former-nanny-turned-campaign-manager — spent stuffing envelopes, scrawling mailing addresses, posting on Facebook and planning fundraising events is apparent in the tremendous results they garnered.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Hickey says of being named LLS Woman of the Year and First National Runner-Up. “It’s exciting. I’m ecstatic that my name will forever be tied to Woman of the Year for this region. It’s still a shock to me. I’m grateful and humbled that I’ve been given the opportunity to make an impact on LLS. Seeing the kids’ faces, knowing you’ve worked to help find this cure.” She pauses, seemingly grasping for words that ultimately escape her, possibly because they don’t exist.
“It’s inexplicable,” she finally says. “Nothing I’ve ever been involved with can ever come close to that.”