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'Gulls' flock to help fight cancer

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Ella Campbell lives her life by a simple but powerful credo: I don't like to do anything little.

Evidence of Campbell's -- and friends Kimberly Porter, Tara Drake and Susannah Taylor's -- take on life is available with an examination of the 34-strong Relay for Life team they assembled, cunningly named A Flock of Gulls (With a Few Boys).

"Ella and I got this idea while on elliptical machines at the gym," Porter, a massage therapist, said. "Then it just kind of snowballed."

Indeed. By the time the Gulls got the word out about their organizational meeting via Facebook and the friend-to-friend grapevine, 18 people came on board. That was in February. On March 5, with singer/songwriter Lindsey Hinkle providing music, the team got an inkling of just how big its fundraising efforts would become.

At a gathering eventually attending by hundreds, the Flock of Gulls raised $2,800 during an evening of wining and dining at the Mellow Mushroom. Now, with Relay for Life only hours away, the team is 34 strong and pushing $15,000 in donations to benefit the American Cancer Society.

Not bad for a group that almost wasn't.

"A lot of us had been involved with Relay before, but we had no plans to put together a team this year," said Campbell, who with her mother Hope is a full-service interior designing woman at Albany-based H. Campbell and Associates. "But we all have lost friends or family members to cancer, and we all have friends or relatives who are cancer survivors.

"We got a late start, but once word got out about what we were doing, things just grew and grew and grew. We set a goal of raising $5,000, but we've passed $14,000 and hope to get to $15,000 before we're through."

The Gulls have surpassed even their own expectations by coming up with some of the most unique fundraising ideas this side of The Price Is Right. They've "flocked" seven homes with plastic seagulls, created and sold origami seagulls representing cancer survivors and persons claimed by the disease, and they've collected a number of impressive prizes -- including two round-trip AirTran tickets -- that will be given out in a survivor raffle.

"This is such an artistic group," Gull member Vicky Stephens, who works with the Westmoreland, Patterson, Moseley & Hinson law firm, said. "They all are so dedicated and work so hard, but they have fun in whatever they're doing.

"Everyone has these great ideas, and they really feed off each other. I haven't seen any disagreements, and with a group this big, that's amazing."

Fellow Gull Jennifer King said it's the team's understanding that everyone does what he or she can that makes it so appealing. That's why the mommy of four makes the drive to Albany from Sylvester for as many meetings and events as she can.

"Some of us can make only a limited time commitment," King said. "But no one resents that. With this group it's 'everyone do what they can.' There are so many talented people in this group, and they all use their talents to make what we're doing even better.

"We all have a good time at our meetings, but I know I feel like we're making a difference. If for nothing else than awareness, we're having an impact."

While the Flock of Gulls has proven itself a dynamic fundraising force in its members' efforts to raise money for cancer care and research, there's no denying the social impact of the group dynamic. Indeed, the Gulls' every-other-week Wednesday-night strategy meetings have turned into social events that rival any other such gatherings in the city.

"A couple of people told us after our first meeting that they couldn't afford to eat out too often," Porter said. "So we decided to make it pot-luck and meet at people's houses. It's a lot more relaxed, and everyone is more comfortable meeting in a friend's home."

A local distiller even added a "spirit-ual" element to the gatherings.

"White Rock Distilleries donated all the vodka we could drink, so we turned our meetings into martini parties," Campbell laughed.

After the get-acquainted party brought in more than half the money the Gulls had hoped to raise for Relay, they immediately set their sights higher. The team has collected more than $1,000 by "flocking" seven homes with sea gulls that have appropriately replaced pink flamingos.

"We found a lady that had plastic sea gulls, and when we told her what we wanted them for, she sold them to us at her price," Campbell said. "She even told us we could pay for them as we got the money."

The youngest Gull, 12-year-old Alexis Anda, who is the daughter of a cancer survivor, came up with the idea of creating origami gulls for the team's "Tree of Hope." Supporters buy white gulls (for $5) in honor of loved ones lost to cancer, and purple gulls that represent cancer survivors.

The team raised another $2,800 at a weekend yard sale, and it should make hundreds more on the survivors raffle that includes a growing list of local merchant-donated prizes such as massages, treats, beauty supplies and services, clothing, meals and, of course, the AirTran tickets.

"AirTran had a statewide contest where they were giving the tickets to the individual or group who got the most individual donations of $5 or more," Campbell said. "I have a log of some 3,000 Albanians that I sent an email blast to, and then my mom and a group of her friends from the Albany High School Class of '63 gave $400 in honor of one of their classmates, Laura Jean Whiting, who was lost to cancer earlier this year, and her daughter, Suzanne Osborne, who is going through treatment now.

"Since AirTran was looking for the largest number of donors, Susannah (Taylor) and I stayed up late into the night splitting that total into $5 donations on the last night of the challenge. That was instrumental in helping us win the challenge and putting Albany on the map."

On the Tuesday after Friday's Relay, the Gulls will host a "victory lap party" at Mellow Mushroom. With the Roxy and McRee Band providing music, the team will draw winners of the survivor raffle and celebrate their efforts in helping in the fight against cancer.

"My grandmother was diagnosed with leukemia in 1998, and she battled it for eight years," surgical tech Beth Hicks said. "After she passed, I felt I needed to do my part to help find a cure for cancer. I work every day with people who have cancer, and I see what they go through.

"I thought being a part of this group would be a good bonding experience, but it's been much more than that. Yes, I've made some good friends, but I've also got to work with a group very dedicated to finding a cure."

Fellow health care worker Teresa Shirley, a nurse in Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital's Medical Intensive Care Unit, agrees.

"My father and grandmother died from cancer a month or so apart," Shirley said. "I've met some very genuine, good friends in this group, but I've been amazed at everyone's willingness to do whatever they could do to help out."

Campbell, meanwhile, has become a local representative of the American Cancer Society. She will lobby state and national legislators on behalf of the organization.

"I am very passionate about what we're doing in this group," she said. "It's an important cause, but it was also important to show that young people in our area can be affective volunteers, too. The older generation that has always supported charitable organizations has started to die out, and it's time for our generation to step in and take their place."

(Campbell said Tuesday that Disney World just announced it is donating a $500 gift card to the individual who collects the largest number of donations in the next seven days. Flock member James "Doug" Crowdis is collecting donations at the following link: If the local team wins the gift card, it will include it in the survivors raffle.)