Mickey Minnich wears a silver bracelet inscribed with the phrase, “One day at a time.”
It’s a reminder, he said, to stay focused on the moment, helping one family at a time as they face cancer. Over the past 15 years, his organization, Vickie’s Angel Foundation (VAF), has raised more than $2.6 million, helping more than 1,500 families throughout a nine-county area of central Pennsylvania.
The nonprofit grew from a humble beginning—as a remembrance walk in memory of Minnich’s wife Vickie, who passed away in 2003 after a brief but intense battle with cancer.
“When Vickie became an angel, what saved me was working and doing something positive,” Minnich said. “The walk we did the first year maybe had 100 people. It just grew from there, into a significant fundraiser and our signature event.”
Vickie’s Angel Walk is now one of 22 fundraising events held throughout the year to support the organization. One hundred percent of all fundraising directly helps families in need. Volunteers do all the administrative work, and sponsors, called “guardian angels,” cover the organization’s other costs.
Minnich, who turned 80 in September, is a former Harrisburg-area high school teacher, guidance counselor and football coach—in addition to being a father, grandfather and a devoted husband who saw Vickie through her cancer diagnosis and treatment. He says all of these experiences helped him establish VAF.
In, 2004, its first full year, VAF provided $30,000 to families facing cancer. Now, the organization averages $30,000 per month.
Through an application process, families affected by cancer can request financial help—not with medical costs—but with household bills that help maintain quality of life and family life.
Minnich said that cancer-stricken families often fall on hard times because income is diminished, there are unexpected medical bills or travel-related treatment costs, and families fall behind on rent, utilities, car payments and other necessities. He estimates that more than half of the organization’s funds directly go to rent or mortgage payments, literally keeping a roof over the heads of patients and their families.
“How can you not throw your heart out to someone struggling with cancer, trying to pay their bills?” he said. “We serve as a financial bridge. We pay the most pressing bills for a temporary time because we want families to focus on healing.”
But the buck doesn’t stop there. Board members gather for weekly conference calls with families, to listen and help.
“We’re more than a check,” Minnich said. “I’ve been in that world. Every cancer is personal. We want families to know we care.”
Marc Palovitz, 48, of Camp Hill, said that he discovered VAF after finding himself “on the receiving end.”
Believing he had gallstones, he instead was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer and liver cancer this past March. Palovitz said that he is grateful to a social worker at Hershey’s Penn State Cancer Institute who suggested that he contact VAF for support.
“Thank God, because the response time from when I called them was the next day,” Palovitz recalled. “They had an application to me. I sent it back, and, within 72 hours, they said, ‘Your rent is paid. What other bills do you have?’”
Palovitz, undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatments and facing an unknown prognosis, had to leave his job managing a rental center in Dillsburg. He shares custody of his two teenage children with his ex-wife. Without his rent payments being made, he isn’t sure what he’d do.
“I wouldn’t be able to have my children over here,” he said. “How would I see my kids?”
Two of VAF’s highest-profile fundraisers are held in October and November—the annual Vickie’s Angel Walk and the SMT Turkey Trot 5K. Both events are held at New Cumberland Borough Park.
Minnich said that 800 to 1,200 people typically participate in the walk, gathering sponsors and honoring loved ones who battled or are battling cancer. But he says the event is much more than a walk.
“Every year, three families speak about their experiences with cancer and VAF, including the themes of love, faith and hope,” he said. “It’s meaningful—something special like a family reunion.”
The SMT Turkey Trot 5K is one of the area’s biggest Thanksgiving morning runs. The event raised about $40,000 last year and a grand total of more than $400,000 over the past 12 years, according to Minnich.
Race director Mari Lynn Dare of Etters said that she began organizing the event in memory of her mother and lifelong New Cumberland resident Shirley Mae Taylor, who passed away in 2003 after a battle with cancer. By the event’s third year, Dare decided to donate all proceeds to VAF.
“We picked Thanksgiving as the date because my mom was very family-oriented,” Dare said. “It’s morphed into something I did to keep my mom’s memory alive into a Thanksgiving tradition that people really enjoy. Every year, it gets bigger, and I keep thinking it’s going to cap off, but we had close to 2,700 participants last year.”
Dare, 53, an accomplished runner who has finished 70 marathons, said that it was only natural that she honor her mom’s memory while providing a race for fellow runners—all benefiting families dealing with cancer.
“A lot of people choose to do our race because it’s going to a good cause and helping people who truly need it,” Dare said.
More than 100 volunteers provide race support, and local businesses donate and sponsor all post-race festivities, including kettles of hot chicken corn soup donated by Nick’s 114 Café, Thanksgiving-themed pies and baked goods donated by Giant.
As for Minnich, he’s been known to don a Pilgrim costume for special appearances on the racecourse. He said that Thanksgiving morning in New Cumberland is a one-of-a-kind holiday.
“I’ve never seen so many happy people running in my life,” he said.
Vickie’s Angel Walk is set for Oct. 13; the 14th Annual SMT Turkey Trot 5K is set for Nov. 22 (smtturkeytrot.org). For more information about Vickie’s Angel Foundation, visit vickiesangelfoundation.org or call 717-774-3800.