FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Oct. 21, 2020) - Ten years ago, the Kraft family and the New England Patriots Foundation introduced a season-long theme called Celebrate Volunteerism. The main focus of the initiative was to recognize community volunteers and to promote the importance of volunteering. Since its inception, New England Patriots players, coaches, alumni, cheerleaders and fans have donated hundreds of thousands of hours to giving back to their New England communities.
Throughout the 2020 season, the foundation will continue its Celebrate Volunteerism initiative by teaming with nonprofit organizations to educate fans about the need for volunteering, highlighting deserving volunteers from across the region and seeking to inspire Patriots fans to become lifelong volunteers. The foundation will present a weekly "Patriots Difference Maker of the Week" award, which recognizes deserving volunteers who go above and beyond to support their New England communities.
"This has been a challenging year, unlike anything we've experienced in our lifetimes," said Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft. "Charitable organizations have been called upon to support more children and families than ever before. We admire all of the hardworking volunteers that have stepped up and helped these nonprofits to continue to serve those in need. Through this Celebrate Volunteerism initiative, we will shine a light on some of these outstanding volunteers, make a donation to their respective charity and encourage our fans to get involved."
Joanie Cullinan from Watertown, Mass. was selected as a 2020 Patriots Difference Maker of the Week for her commitment to DetecTogether. As part of this recognition, the New England Patriots Foundation will be making a $5,000 donation to the nonprofit organization.
Less than two years ago, Joanie – a firefighter in Wellesley – was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma. She was just 37 years old at the time and was shocked by the diagnosis. However, she was determined to not only beat cancer, but to serve as a tireless advocate for early detection and cancer research.
"When I was diagnosed with stage 3 melanoma at age 37, I knew I needed to do more than beat cancer," said Joanie. "I needed to use my voice to raise awareness for occupational cancer and to promote early detection. I know early detection saves lives. It's one of the reasons I'm alive."
Joanie joined forces with DetecTogether, a nonprofit organization focused on teaching people how to detect cancer early. The organization treats healthcare as a team sport and empowers people to be active patients. 15-40 Connection's "3 Steps Detect" teaches people how to recognize cancer symptoms, gives a timeframe for action and the skills to self-advocate. The result is often less intrusive treatment, a quicker return to health and lives saved.
As a firefighter, Joanie was aware that cancer is the number one line of duty cause of death for firefighters. After her own diagnosis, she made it her mission to educate her brothers and sisters in the fire service about the importance of paying attention to symptoms and getting timely help. The delay in diagnosis is often what makes cancer deadly, and many firefighters minimize symptoms and have a hard time asking for help.
"I'm a firefighter. We help people, that's just what we do," said Joanie. "Firefighters are nine percent more likely to get cancer than civilians and 14 percent more likely to die from cancer. Occupational cancer is real. This is bigger than me and this fight is bigger than just my fight."
Joanie agreed to participate in a DetecTogether public service announcement for firefighters, sharing her story in person and in firehouses. She has participated in local community television programs, served on several cancer survivor panels and led discussions at local high schools.
Despite her ongoing cancer treatments and the pandemic, Joanie continued to find ways to share her story and share the importance of patient action in early detection. She wrote blogs, filmed vlogs, advocated on social media and fundraised for the nonprofit.
"I truly feel I met the folks at DetecTogether by fate. We had the same message, they had the platform to speak from, I had the voice and I wasn't afraid to make myself vulnerable," said Joanie. "I knew I needed to tell my story to help others. If I can prevent anyone from going through what I went through, then it makes it worthwhile."
Joanie recently returned to work after more than a year of cancer treatment at the Wellesley Fire Department and continues to be an invaluable volunteer for DetecTogether. With her infectious enthusiasm and tireless dedication, Joanie is positively impacting countless lives.
"I am so humbled by the support I have received and so thankful for every person that took the time to listen to my story and of course for my friends, family and brother and sister firefighters who fought right alongside me," said Joanie. "This is a really trying time in the world right now and I hope I can be an inspiration to someone who is struggling today. I want them to know that they can do hard things. It will get better."
The Kraft family and the New England Patriots Foundation encourage fans to show their support for local charitable organizations and to nominate a volunteer for the Patriots Difference Maker of the Week Award. To get involved, visit www.patriots.com/community.