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I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Cathy Varunok

Shortening the distance between hope and home

Sixteen years ago, Cathy Varunok’s youngest daughter Mikayla, then just four years old, struck up a conversation with a stranger. It was the beginning of something that would change countless lives in the Hudson Valley.

They were at a fundraising event for breast cancer, a disease to which Varunok had lost an older sister. The woman, Dana Effron, was a breast cancer survivor. Effron and Varunok became acquaintances, which grew into a friendship as they continued to run into one another and various breast cancer-related charity events.

What was also growing was their dissatisfaction with those events.

“We realized – independently of one another – that none of the money we were raising was going into our neighborhoods,” Varunok says.

Finally, after bumping into each other again at the Dyson Center in Poughkeepsie where Varunok worked as an occupational therapist, the two women made plans to meet on purpose this time. Varunok had an idea she wanted to share with Effron.

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“I wanted to found a local organization to help women with breast cancer in the Hudson Valley,” she says. “And it turned out that she had the same idea. We were both seeing people in our backyards who weren’t getting the help they needed. We were raising all this money, but we weren’t seeing the benefits of any of it.”

Filling a need
Varunok and Effron founded Miles of Hope in 2003 to help women in the Hudson Valley battling breast cancer.

It was designed to provide services that larger organizations weren’t but that Effron (as a survivor) and Varunok (as a medical professional) knew first hand were badly needed, like gap funds, to cover everyday expenses for people who had to take time off of work for treatment; treatments like massage therapy, art therapy, or reiki that were often not covered by insurances; peer-to-peer counseling for newly diagnosed women to be introduced to survivors who can tell them what to expect and how to get through it and something especially dear to Varunok’s heart – scholarships for those whose lives have been affected by breast cancer.

“I paid my own way through college by piecing together a lot of little scholarships,” she says. “Having a niece and a nephew who were left behind, I realized that kids who are affected by this need help too.”

In their parent’s footsteps
Today, Mikayla is a 20-year-old college student who’s no longer at home in Lagrange with her parents. Her two older siblings have moved out as well: Recently married Nicholas, 26, is in medical school, and Katey, 24, just graduated with a degree in occupational therapy like her mother.

Varunok’s husband is a physician, and the two of them often joke that their kids aren’t creative enough to come up with their own professions and have just decided to do what their parents do instead. But they know it’s because they’ve set a good example.

“They all saw growing up how much we both love our jobs,” she says.

READ MORE: Local mom tackles breast cancer head on

Tough lessons
Their kids also saw firsthand the changes that Miles of Hope was making in people’s lives. “They were literally involved from the very beginning,” says Varunok. “They’ve run events. They’ve been on committees. They’ve stuffed envelopes. They’ve made tickets. It’s been their whole life.” That wasn’t by accident. Varunok felt it was important for her kids to be a part of the work she was doing.

“Growing up as the children of a physician means you grow up somewhat privileged, so I wanted them to understand the responsibility that comes with that, the responsibility of giving back to the community,” she says. “They’re all still super volunteers, and they volunteer for organizations where they live now, because that’s all they’ve ever known.”

Seeing the effect that being part of Miles of Hope has had on her kids by growing up with it has been a source of great joy to Varunok.

“I’m so proud that they’ve grown up to be good citizens and good people,” she says. “Everyone always says they want their kids to be happy. I don’t necessarily think that’s what is really important. I want them to be productive members of society, because if they are, happiness usually follows that.”

Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer whose work appears throughout the Hudson Valley.

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