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Honoring Irene

Honoring Irene
How do you honor someone who meant the world to you? For Jesse Byrd it's by ensuring support and care for cancer patients in the community his wife so loved.

Irene Thompson Byrd was passionate about helping cancer patients. Both she and Jesse were volunteers at Cape Fear Valley Cancer Center (now called Cape Fear Valley Cancer Treatment and CyberKnife Center) and were instrumental in establishing Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation's Friends of the Cancer Center.

In 1991, the mother of two lost her battle with lung cancer. Now, the Byrd family has partnered with the Health Foundation to create the Irene Thompson Byrd Cancer Care Endowment.

"Unfortunately, there are very few families today that aren't touched by cancer in some way," Byrd said. His first experience with the disease occurred more than 25 years ago.

"I had a call one afternoon from a friend who had been at Duke with her daughter, who was unfortunately suffering from cancer," Byrd remembers. "She had learned about Friends of Cancer at Duke University Health System and she thought it might be something that could be put in place in Fayetteville."

The Byrds agreed and in 1989, they, along with area cancer survivors, business leaders, physicians, hospital employees and community members, banded together to support the patients of Cape Fear Valley Cancer Center. As the group grew, they became known as Friends of the Cancer Center.

Friends of the Cancer Center focused on raising funds to support patients during treatment. They helped patients purchase medications, reimbursed gas for travel to treatments and provided turbans and wigs for those in need.

Byrd says he realized the impact Friends of the Cancer Center was having on his community one day during a board meeting.

"It was brought to our attention that a patient was having financial problems," he said. "She had cancer and wasn't faring well. She had one daughter, and the only thing she had to leave her daughter was her house. But she was in financial distress and behind on the payments. I realized the impact of our board that day, because we passed the hat and we saved her house."

The depth and breadth of support Friends of Cancer can provide to the community has grown exponentially over the years. But Byrd isn't surprised.

"I think Fayetteville is a giving community," he said. "I thought once the ball started rolling, they would kick it down the road."

And kick it they have.

With the help of community support and successful fundraisers, the Health Foundation and Friends of the Cancer Center have been able to contribute more than $142,000 last year in Cancer Center care and support.

"The support that we've had with the annual Ribbon Walk and from local businesses expresses how generous Fayetteville people are," said Byrd. "There are so many ways that they have generated financial support."

Byrd is hoping that generosity will parlay into a successful cancer care endowment. The Health Foundation currently has more than $300,000 in commitments with a goal to raise $2 million. As a certified public accountant, Byrd understands the importance of investment. He knows an endowment of this size would provide approximately $80,000 annually to supplement fundraising for patient support.

"There's always a need there," he said. "Every year our annual giving programs are tremendously important, but if you can build an endowment base that generates an investment income, you know that base is always going to be there."

While Byrd feels that a cancer care endowment is a fitting way to honor his beloved wife and best friend, he was too modest to discuss the gift initially.

"It was my wish that it be a private thing," he said. But a friend got Byrd to rethink matters.

"She said, 'Jesse, that's not the right attitude,'" he said. "'The more you talk about it, the more we can hope that support will grow.'"

So, Byrd is now talking about the endowment established in his wife's name. After all, talking about her is something he greatly enjoys.

"Irene loved her family and her family loved her," he said with tears in his eyes. "One of her nieces told me, 'Aunt Irene is everyone's favorite aunt.'"

Born and raised in Fayetteville, Irene was loved and respected in her community. And Byrd wants the community to know this endowment is as much for them as it is to celebrate Irene.

"It's not just about Irene or the Friends of the Cancer Center," he said. "It's about the community. It's about the doctors and the nurses and the techs. And about all the people who do all they can to help those who are less fortunate. And that takes money."

Byrd is sure that his wife is proud of the endowment that bears her name.

"I like to think we've helped a lot of people," he said. "I'm sure she's seen how much the cancer center has grown and I'm sure she's proud."
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