Someone Else’s Shoes

Alexandria resident Donna McKelvey, executive director of the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, is taking an active approach to cancer research.

Alexandria resident Donna McKelvey, executive director of the local chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, is taking an active approach to cancer research.

By Robert Fulton

Photography by Seth Freeman
Photography by Seth Freeman

Every four minutes someone in the United States is diagnosed with a blood cancer. An estimated 139,860 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma in 2009. And leukemia causes more deaths than any other cancer in children under the age of 20. One of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) most popular programs to raise funds for research and to support those battling blood cancer is Team in Training, which trains participants to complete endurance events while the participants raise funds for LLS. Donna McKelvey, executive director of the National Capital Area chapter of LLS, found time to talk about the rewards and challenges of her work and participating in Team in Training, which is actively recruiting participants for the next season.

How did you get involved with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society?
I had been a director of sales and marketing in the hotel industry, and decided to just try something different. I thought this would be my transition job, and 17 years later, I think I’ve found my place. I found my niche.

You said it would be your transition job, and you’ve stayed for 17 years. Why have you stayed with [LLS] for 17 years?
It’s the mission. The mission is so incredibly powerful—the opportunity on a daily basis to truly make an impact. I, personally, will never find the cure for cancer, but I feel our team of staff and volunteers are providing the researchers with the tools, and that’s the funding. So I feel like I have a part of a greater good in my work. It’s a career. It’s a fantastic job, but also, at the end of a tough day, it feels pretty good.

Do you, yourself, have any personal connection with LLS in any way?
I didn’t coming into the job, but about six years ago my father was diagnosed with CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia). He’s not being treated; it’s sort of a watch and wait situation. But then two years ago, my aunt was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma. It’s relapsed, but has successfully responded to treatment. It does have a much more personal reason these days, but the families I’ve met [in] the last 17 years, they’re also my motivation every day.

What are some of the challenges you face in this position?
I don’t think this would be something somebody else wouldn’t say. The economic environment we’re in has posed a challenge. But at the same time here in National Capital, our donors and our sponsors and our participants have really rallied behind us and have stayed as committed to us as ever. We’re just working harder, as everybody is, so we’re not alone in that sense, but really trying to be very laser-focused on what we do so that we are making a dramatic impact to our bottom line. We’re raising the most efficient dollar.

Have you seen a significant drop-off in donations or fundraising?
We have. I wouldn’t consider it significant. We’re about 5 percent behind where we were last year. I’ll share with you, I’ve had some board members say, “I wish my business was only off 5 percent,” so I have to say that’s really a tribute to our donors and our volunteers really staying focused and sticking with us.

Do you have any idea how this compares to other nonprofits or other fundraising efforts?
I have to say we’re probably faring a bit better than some of our sister organizations. Specifically in the health arena, we’re probably doing a bit better.

I asked you some challenges. What are some of the rewards?
We have the opportunity to meet on a daily basis folks who do our events and our campaigns who come in and have no connection to our mission and get involved, but once they’re involved, they really do become entrenched in our mission. So it’s the people. Fundraising or nonprofits are no different than any other business. It’s about relationships. We’ve met some of the most amazing people along the way, and really had the opportunity to form some great relationships.

Tell me about Team in Training.
Team in Training, it really put the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society on the map. It started 21 years ago with one individual in Westchester, N.Y., who, unfortunately, his daughter was diagnosed with leukemia, and we wanted to do something to try and help raise money, so he rallied about 30 of his friends and found someone who could train them for the New York City Marathon, and that year they raised $320,000. That sort of was the birth of Team in Training.

Thirty people raised $320,000?
So you can tell all of the executive directors are going, “Hmmm, this is a good idea.” And it grew from marathon training to cycling events … into triathlons. Now we train folks for half-marathons and 10Ks. It’s 21 years strong, and it’s our largest revenue stream for our organization.

Have you yourself done one of these endurance events?
I have, actually back in 1993 when I was in Rhode Island as the executive director, and TNT was just really starting to come on strong. I thought if I’m going to ask people to do it, I really should step to the line and do it myself, and I ran my first marathon. Since then I’ve done about six events with Team in Training.

Just remembering what it’s about helps you finish?
It really does. Especially when it might be that morning when that rain is tapping on the window for your training runs, and you’re like, “Do I want to get out of this warm toasty bed?” And you do. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity for someone to get in shape from a physical fitness perspective. We couple that with, you’re not only doing it for yourself, but someone else. That’s a pretty hopeful combination.

What was your time?
4:45 was my best time.

Not bad.
Not bad, not bad, not bad. I’m not sure if there’s any more marathons left in me, but half-marathons and 10Ks and perhaps one more triathlon is in me.

As far as the mission of LLS, where do you see LLS going in the next 10 years? What do you want to see It look like in 10 years?
We are really still going to continue our traditional research programs. In the next 10 years, we really want to focus on advancing those cure rates. So perhaps it may be some unmet needs and seeing where we have not seen some strong progress and really trying to focus specifically on some targeted areas so we can accelerate cure rates at a faster pace. But also on that patient services side, really making sure that we are there for the patients and their families from the initial diagnosis so we can be with them through their journey with cancer. Resources, information, guidebooks, it’s overwhelming to an individual and their family when they’re dealt with a diagnosis of cancer.

It’s more than just what happens in a hospital room.
It’s outside that. The doctors are amazing, and there’s that initial diagnosis, and they’re there to support the patient. The nurses and social workers are phenomenal. Outside of that there’s the family members trying to deal and cope with “this just happened.” So we have support groups and all sorts of educational programs that our patients and their families can attend and listen to from a teleconference perspective. Or having somebody call them on the phone, to help provide information. And sometimes just be able to talk to somebody who’s already been down that road. That person can empathize with them and truly help them sort through what they have to do to get a handle on what’s ahead of them.

Have you seen changes in the last 17 years?
Absolutely. When I started, we didn’t have certain words in our vocabulary, like targeted therapies and oral cancer drugs. It’s amazing to be with an organization this long and to have the opportunity to be on the frontlines and see how much progress has been made.

To learn more about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, visit For more info on the Team in Training program, visit Recruitment for the 2010 summer season is currently underway.

(April 2010)