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July 9, 2010
Pauline Tan: Theatre volunteering is a summer hit for a cancer survivor

Pauline Tan and her husband, John, in a movie theater lobby

Pauline Tan and her husband, John, in their summer weekend stomping grounds.

People often go to the movies to forget life's challenges. For Pauline Tan, summer visits to Showcase Cinemas in Woburn, Mass., are a vivid reminder of one of her greatest challenges — and a way of helping others facing similar obstacles.

Tan and her family are volunteers with the Jimmy Fund/Variety Children's Charity Theatre Collections program, the Jimmy Fund's longest-running fundraiser. Each summer since 1949, participating theaters have shown a Jimmy Fund trailer (or movie short) before the start of their feature films, after which volunteers and theater personnel pass around Jimmy Fund canisters and invite patrons to support the cause.

Tan, a Lexington, Mass., resident, has been putting in weekly shifts in Woburn as a volunteer with the program since shortly after her treatment for nasal cancer in 2000-2001.

Having lost both her parents to cancer, and in remission for nearly a decade, she enjoys the opportunity to spread the word about the need to aid research and patient care at Dana-Farber.

She has the process down pat. Donning her theatre collections T-shirt and accompanied by her husband, John, and/or her college sons Zechariah and Ivan, Tan goes from room to room inside the cinema just before each feature film begins.

After the Jimmy Fund trailer, which tells the moving story of pediatric cancer survivor Dan Pardi, volunteers ask those in the audience interested in making a gift to raise their hands. With just a few moments before the next film short starts, they have to move fast.

"The giving is contagious — if one or two people raise their hands, usually others will as well," says Tan. "It's very rewarding to see children eager to put their money into the canisters. Recently, after I said `thank you' to a boy for his donation, he replied, `I was helped by the Jimmy Fund.'"

Making connections

Although she admits it gets "a little emotional" when audience members tell her they too have a cancer connection as a survivor or family member, she relishes those moments.

"After I told an older woman `thank you from a stage 4 cancer survivor,' she gave me a hug and told me, `You are lucky; my son died of cancer last April,'" Tan recalls. "I lost my oldest son, Caleb, to a heart problem when he was 1, so I could really commiserate with her. I told her we'd continue to try and find better treatments and cures."

In 2009, movie audiences contributed more than $750,000 to the Jimmy Fund through the program, and Zechariah Tan feels good knowing he is doing his part to support the place that helped save his mom.

"It makes me feel even better when I learn there are people who didn't even realize there is something like this going on," says Zechariah, who has also volunteered in the Eleanor and Maxwell Blum Patient and Family Resource Center at Dana-Farber.

"It's a great way to get the word out about what the Jimmy Fund is doing to help children and adults, and the film tells a very moving story," he says. "Sometimes people are emotionally shaken when they take out their money."

— Saul Wisnia
Saul_Wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu