Proving that Leadership is an Action, not a Position. Meet HERS Breast Cancer Foundation Executive Director, Tina Fernandez
Q: For those in our audience not familiar with the mission of HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, can you share what the organization is about and what do you all do?
TF: HERS Breast Cancer Foundation’s mission is to support all individuals healing from breast cancer by providing post-surgical products and services regardless of financial status. We do this through three Assistance Programs that provides help to a breast cancer survivor to feel and look their best such as support camisoles, pocketed bras, breast forms (prostheses), compression garments to address arm and hand swelling caused by lymph node removal, and wigs and other head coverings.
HERS Breast Cancer Foundation was founded in 1998 by Tricia J. McMahon, a breast health consultant, Cheryl A. Maloney, a fundraising executive, and Nancy J. Vitale, a tax consultant. They were motivated by concern for women and the high incidence of breast cancer as well as the lack of specific services for breast cancer survivors. HERS has been in continuous operation since that time and operates three Bay Area locations: Fremont, Pleasanton, and San Leandro. Our locations are donated by Washington Hospital Healthcare System, Stanford Health Care ValleyCare, and Kaiser Permanente.
I’m very proud of our team. We are a group of 12 women who work hard and are passionate about our mission. We completed over 3,600 patient visits in 2018 and are on track to donate over $182,000 in post-surgical products to patients by the end of our fiscal year. The majority of our team are certified Mastectomy Fitters who have the title of Breast Care Specialists. Once a patient is referred to us by a health care professional, a Breast Care Specialist will see the patient and provide them with individualized fitting services and dispense garments. For patients with insurance, our accounting staff member will handle billing for them so that patients may concentrate on what matter most – their recovery. For patients who are low income or under-insured, our Assistance Programs fund the products they need.
Q: What do you love most about HERS and the work you all do?
TF: I’m proud to work for an organization that recognizes that survivors deserve access to products that help them look and feel good about themselves. I’m even more proud to work with a team of women who are wonderfully compassionate, hard-working, and patient-focused. They truly go “above and beyond” to help our patients feel cared for. Our tag line is “a soft place to fall” and was created several years ago by a patient who shared that HERS was her “soft place to fall” during one of the hardest times of her life – her breast cancer journey. Knowing that we’ve had a role in helping a survivor work through an often-devastating time their lives means everything.
Q: How has HERS made a difference and what impact do you still wish to see made?
TF: We know that our low income and under-insured patients (and some uninsured patients) would go without the products and our fitting services if it weren’t for HERS. We are unique in the Bay Area in that our Assistance Programs allow us to give products and provide fitting services, unlike similar for-profit businesses. Being able to keep our Assistance Programs going is a lot of work. We fundraise throughout the year, including hosting our spring People with Purpose gala and our fall 5k/10k Walk/Run & Community Expo.
In addition, we conduct a year-end/holiday campaign which is a mail and email campaign to raise funds. Last (but not least) we’re incredibly fortunate to have many community partners who raise funds for HERS during October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Fundraising efforts during that period range from bake sales hosted at workplaces to larger initiatives such as the #PinkPatchProject hosted by several local law enforcement organizations, including the police departments of the Cities of Fremont, Hayward, Alameda, Dublin, and the East Bay Regional Park District Police. Other fundraisers include Barb’s Pink Party hosted by Pacific West Gymnastics were students “Tumble for a Cure,” Pleasanton’s Rage Soccer who hosted a “Rage Kicks Cancer” event, Pete Keady, owner of several Bay Area Orangetheory franchises who donated generously, Raymond Handling’s annual Pink Pallet auction, Premier Nissan and Toyota of Fremont which donated a percentage of every car sold during the month, and the Alameda County Firefighters who raised funds at an all-day softball tournament. These are just a few examples of our tremendously generous friends who stand with us in supporting breast cancer survivors.
Q: What is it you like to say to potential donors and volunteers?
TF: I’d like potential donors and volunteers to know that HERS is a place where patients can and do drop by just to say hello and have coffee. That says a lot about our community relationships. Many of our patients tell us that HERS is like family to them and I see this every day. Patients say that they wouldn’t go anywhere else for fitting services and products because our staff is so warm and helpful, and also because our products are absolutely amazing. We have bras in beige, white, and black but we also stock gorgeous bras in colors and patterns, and our wigs are simply gorgeous. We’ve had patients say that they love our stores because they’re so beautiful and welcoming. That’s a nice change from the other spaces they often visit which are more clinical.
I’d also like to share that a small percentage of our patients are men. Males get breast cancer, too, although at a rate far less than women (Male rate of BC is 1 in 1,000; Female rate of BC is 1 in 8). For males who experience breast cancer, HERS is here for them with our lymphedema (compression) garments. When cancer involved lymph, nodes are removed and/or a patient undergoes radiation some patients experience arm and hand swelling, a condition caused lymphedema. About 30-40% of survivors, whether male or female will develop the condition. So male patients are served by HERS as well via fittings for gloves and sleeves and dispensing those products. But back to male breast cancer: men need to be aware that this occurs and get medical help if they detect breast cancer symptoms such as lumps, skin changes, and nipple discharge.
Lastly, I’d like to share that HERS welcomes donations throughout the year so we may continue to provide outstanding services and products to all our patients. Volunteers are also essential to helping us successfully host fundraising events, to provide outreach support, and to help us at our program stores with administrative and other tasks. Our current staff, Board members, and volunteers are wonderfully dedicated to our mission and passionate about restoring HERS (Hope, Empowerment, Renewal, and Support) in each of our patients and we welcome new volunteers and donors!
Q: What led to your decision to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector?
TF: I started in the nonprofit sector about 12 years ago following an extended period of being a stay at home mom to my two children. My older child has special needs, so my time spent away from the workforce was longer than anticipated. Once my kids were older and I had run out of school volunteer options, another mom recommended that I volunteer for nonprofits. I started out as a volunteer for a local domestic violence victim support organization and worked my way up to Development Director. A bit over two years ago, Dr. Vera Packard, HERS then-Executive Director, encouraged me to apply for the ED position at HERS as she was leaving to become Lazarex Foundation’s Executive Director.
That’s my history of where I’ve been in nonprofits. As to WHY I work in this sector, I do it because helping those in need is richly rewarding. I’m proud of the work that we do! I also need to give credit to my parents. My mom set an example by donating to causes that she cared about and stressing how important kindness is. Both my parents worked really hard and taught me an appreciation for what we have and giving back. Today I support several local nonprofits in addition to donating to HERS donor and I’m a member of a local Rotary chapter – Niles Rotary – which does amazing work to support local and international causes.
Q: Do you have any advice you can share for those women who may want to pursue a career in the Nonprofit sector?
TF: If you’re lacking in experience in a particular nonprofit’s cause, considering volunteering. That’s a great way to see if a nonprofit is a good fit for you and is run in a manner that echoes your values. On a practical note, be open to make less than you would in a for-profit position; most nonprofits (especially local, small organizations) have limited staff budgets. You’ll also likely start off as an entry-level staff member if you lack experience. Think of how you can leverage your skills into a position at a nonprofit to forward the cause. For example, individuals with research and writing skills could provide much-needed help to a nonprofit as a grant writer, for example. Social media savvy could land you a position in communications.
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
TF: We talk a lot about self-care and how important it is to slow down. Try not to take work home or answer non-urgent email after hours. Many nonprofit staff members wear more than one hat because a large staff with individualized responsibilities is costly. While hard work is important, taking on too much work can creep up on you and be really damaging. That’s not likely to be news to anyone reading this. Burnout happens in all sectors but in the nonprofit sector it’s much more frequent than it should be.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
TF: Where to start? Life/work balance for sure. Income worries, especially affording to live in areas where the cost of living is high. Worries about affordable rent and childcare, especially for single women and moms. And personal safety. Women are disproportionately abused by intimate partners. Leaving is difficult for many reasons, including fear and financial concerns.
Q: What do you like the most about living in the Bay Area?
TF: I was born and raised in the Bay Area! I’ve seen it change tremendously over the years, but its best features are still really special: cultural diversity, the variety of things to do (parks, shopping, events, museums, performances, restaurants) and that we’re just about an hour from some great beaches. And it’s exciting that so many nonprofits and innovative businesses start here.
Five Things About Tina Fernandez
1. What book are you currently reading?
I just finished reading Alex Michaelides’s “The Silent Patient.” I rarely have an entire afternoon free to read but I did last weekend and kept going until I finished. On my nightstand is my newest purchase: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. That’s next up.
2. If you could talk to one famous person past or present, who would it be and why?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I’d like to know what keeps her going strong, among other things.
3. Favorite dessert?
Just one? That’s tough. I like to bake. Simple desserts are best. Shortbread with a cup of hot tea. Dessert I don’t hesitate to buy: the berry shortcake with freshly whipped cream at Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California. If no one is working at the farm stand, they have an honor system till. Go outside, sit on a camp chair and eat while viewing the ocean. Perfect after a long beach walk. The farm is certified organic, and its workers are unionized. What’s not to love.
4. Favorite City?
I’m going to choose an island: Kauai. Narrow it down to a town there? Hanalei.
5. What app can’t you live without?
New York Times app. Oh, and Google maps. I’m directionally challenged.