As we wrap up National Volunteer Week, we’re delighted to turn the spotlight on one truly groovy 3-Day volunteer.
Every year, the Susan G. Komen 3-Day events welcome back thousands of returning walkers. Whether they’re back for the second time or have been part of the 3-Day since it began, veteran walkers know to expect to see certain things when they take their 60-mile stroll, and this is especially true for folks who return to the same 3-Day location year after year.
For example, Michigan walkers know that their 3-Day experience just won’t be complete until they’ve seen Cathy Schwandt. Cathy has walked the 3-Day 5 times herself and crewed once, but that’s not why people know her. On the Michigan 3-Day, Cathy is unmistakable for her alter-ego: the Michigan Dancing Lady.
Although she is a breast cancer survivor, Cathy wasn’t necessarily compelled to get involved with the 3-Day because of her own connection with the disease. “I was diagnosed in 1980, and I really didn’t get involved in anything breast cancer-related until I was almost 20 years out. It never entered my mind before that.” After taking part in the Race for the Cure with a friend, Cathy decided to up her game. “I was looking for an event to walk because I had just gotten in shape, and I saw the 3-Day in a magazine. It just kind of caught me, so I got my niece to walk with me. It wasn’t really because of breast cancer, but that was the bonus on top of it.” Right from the start, for Cathy, the 3-Day was about doing something fulfilling. “It was a challenge, but I could do it. I never advertised that I was a survivor, but once I got involved and saw what it did for the people going through breast cancer, I started seeing the meaning and understanding the impact.”
That was the San Francisco Bay Area 3-Day in 2001. Cathy has countless happy memories from her first 3-Day, and she vividly remembers one particular supporter on that event, a guy who drove along the route in his truck for all 3 days, blasting “Pretty Woman” on repeat for all the walkers to hear. Cathy, a Motown native (she’s fond of saying, “You can take the girl out of Detroit, but you can’t take Detroit out of the girl”), loves to dance. “Every time the ‘Pretty Woman’ truck would come by, I’d pick up my step and start dancing, and it loosened me up and made me feel better when the walking was getting tough.” She didn’t know it at the time, but that was when Dancing Lady was born.
The following year, Cathy went to walk in Washington, D.C., and experienced quite a different vibe along the route. This was 2002, and the nation’s capital was still reeling from the events of September 11, 2001. Cathy recalls that so many places around the D.C. area were locked down and quiet, and that silence was noticeable on the 3-Day. “In D.C., there was nobody. I realized what a difference it made having that support on the route.”
Cathy knew that the Michigan 3-Day was coming up just a few weeks later, and she had a friend walking there. “That was the first year the 3-Day was in Michigan, and I knew they wouldn’t have the support up there yet. It was a brand new event and people didn’t know to go out and do that yet. So that’s why I went up there and said, the least I can do is play music.” Cathy positioned herself right outside of the Opening Ceremony to give the walkers an enthusiastic send-off, then continued stopping along the route all day. “I was there with my little boom box out the back of my car just playing music and dancing. I did it on Friday and Saturday, but had to work on Sunday. My friend told me later that everyone was asking, ‘Where did that dancing lady go?’”
That was it. Cathy knew what her role would be from that point on and she has been at the Michigan 3-Day ever since. It wasn’t long before she had her own logo. She made Dancing Lady pins she could sell. She has her own Facebook page. Indeed, the Dancing Lady is a fixture on the Michigan 3-Day.
The only time Cathy has missed the Michigan event was in 2013 when the 3-Day was just a few weeks after she had had surgery for pancreatic cancer. “When I had my surgery in 2013, I posted that I wouldn’t be able to come.” She tears up a bit remembering it. “And those people in Michigan got a 20-foot piece of poster paper, and every walker signed it. Everybody signed it that walked. People wrote out postcards and I got 2 big envelopes full of them. Friends made a life-size cut-out of me for people to take pictures with and put a picture of my face on a stick and took ‘Flat Cathy’ around with them.”
Some people may not immediately think of cheering and dancing when they think of volunteering, but in Cathy’s case, it sure is. “It’s definitely volunteering! I put 4 days of my life to it. I’ve missed my husband’s birthday for the 3-Day. What I do in 4 days, I get back a thousand times. The love, the appreciation. But that’s not why I do it though.”
We certainly can’t imagine the Michigan 3-Day without our Dancing Lady, and it’s exciting to know that she’ll be there this August to celebrate the 3-Day’s 150th event with us. After that? “My husband and I are retired and we’re going to travel, so I’m not sure,” Cathy says. Then she immediately reconsiders with a chuckle. “Every year I say I’m not going back, but it comes around and I just can’t stay away.
“You just don’t know the impact you can have until you’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve gotten emails from walkers saying, ‘Just when I thought I couldn’t walk another step, there you were.’ Every year, I get similar messages. How could I not keep doing it?”
Would you like to get into the volunteer spirit and organize your very own 3-Day mobile cheering squad (1-4 people) or private cheering station (groups of five or more)? If so, please contact a coach 2-6 weeks prior to the 3-Day.