Key organizer of local breast cancer foundation passes the baton

While she's never had breast cancer herself, Sandy Maniscalco has watched her friends fight it, some of them losing their battles. So, for the past 14 years, she has devoted her entire retirement to building a nonprofit dedicated to funding breast cancer research — something she never imagined she'd do.

But her longtime friend and Pfizer coworker Norma Logan, who had battled the disease and "was a real force," Maniscalco said Saturday, inspired the two in 2005 to co-found the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation.

And though Maniscalco said the pair "had no idea what it really meant to start a nonprofit," Logan had "a precise vision for how this would happen." Logan recruited a board of directors, marathon runners and supporters to help kick off the New London-based nonprofit, named after a friend who had died of breast cancer the year before.

In the years since, the TBBCF has become known throughout the region for its annual Walk Across Southeastern Connecticut every October, as well as its mission of donating all proceeds to breast cancer research grants.

In 2006, when Logan died from a second bout with breast cancer, Maniscalco took on a key role in the organization, serving several years as executive director and helping inspire hundreds to take part in the foundation and, in turn, fundraising more than $4 million for breast cancer research.

Now 77, Maniscalco is ready to take a less active role, giving up most of her duties in the daily operations of TBBCF but remaining on the board of directors — a decision she said she has been planning for over the last year.

Maniscalco's responsibilities will now be taken over by two part-time employees: Development and Outreach Director Amy Caster and Director of Operations Kate Davis.

“Norma was definitely the visionary, and she signed me up as one of her main missionaries,” Maniscalco said Saturday, while sitting in her Westerly home. “It’s been a job I haven’t been able to walk away from and something that has enriched my life since retiring.”

‘I think we should start our own nonprofit’

The idea for the foundation sparked in 2005, Maniscalco explained, after she and Logan finished a three-day, 60-mile walk as part of a fundraiser for a different breast cancer advocacy group.

Logan, having just went into remission with her first bout of breast cancer, started fundraising for those walks as a way to give back, Maniscalco said. But when Logan found out two years later, in 2005, that 40 percent of the $210,000 that she and several dozen other group members had raised went not toward research but toward overhead, she was very “dismayed.”

“I remember Norma looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think I can do the walk again in 2006,’” Maniscalco explained. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think we should start our own nonprofit.’”

Explaining that the foundation was Logan’s brainchild — “She really gave us the road map of her inspiration” — Maniscalco said that she and its other founding members successfully carried out TCCBF’s mission after Logan died.

“It was very clear what her messages was,” Maniscalco said. “That we needed to be transparent because we were not going to spend donation dollars on overhead. We needed people to understand that every dollar they donate goes directly to breast cancer research. And that’s what drove us after she died.”

In the years since Logan died, Maniscalco has participated in and flourished with just about every aspect required for a nonprofit to succeed. She’s recruited sponsors and volunteers, organized fundraisers, met with organizations to promote TBBCF and even walked the annual marathon several times raising, in her own time, thousands of dollars for the foundation.

Taking over as executive director of the organization in 2015, her position soon evolved into director of development and outreach, where she oversaw the foundation’s website, marketing and communication initiatives, among other responsibilities.

“I realized then that someone had to look at the things that were missing with the foundation, and I guess that’s what I did,” Maniscalco said, explaining that she spearheaded the organization’s outreach efforts — which she believed was fundamental for the organization’s success.

Maniscalco also started an internship program for college students and has reimagined how the foundation would present itself to the public. Besides creating relationships with development officials from research organizations such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and UMass General Hospital, she also has inspired the foundation’s funded researchers to take part in the organization’s key events, such as its annual walk and its annual meeting.

“Making (our researchers) more accessible to our donors, our volunteers, our walkers, was important,” Maniscalco said. “People need to know that (what we are doing) is real. When you have one of these researchers come talk to 100 people at an annual meeting about what they are doing and what their hopes are about finding a cure for breast cancer, that helps the people who support us believe in what we are working for.”

John LaMattina, a founding member of the foundation and president of its board, said Maniscalco “really became the driving force of the organization once Norma died.”

“It’s pretty hard to say no to Sandy,” LaMattina continued. “She is very committed and leads by example with the tremendous work she has done.”

Ellen Swercewski, a board member who has worked closely with Maniscalco, agreed, saying, “When I think of Sandy, I immediately think of a person of passion and vison."

“One of the reason’s we’ve come so far and have lasted so long is because of her vision. She is loyal to Norma’s vision, and Sandy is dedicated to that,” Swercewski said. “She knows what has to be done to bring success to a project and I’ve always admired her for that.”

Experience through Pfizer

Maniscalco said her many years working both within Pfizer’s global communications and regulatory affairs departments helped her take such an active role with the Terri Brodeur foundation.

Maniscalco began working at Pfizer in the 1970s as a secretary. Dissatisfied in that role, however — “It was far too detail oriented” — Maniscalco quickly began teaching herself about office automation, a new technology Pfizer was implementing at the time, while also working with the very first computers used by the company.

Soon, working her way up through the company and accepting a position as a manager, and later a supervisor within clinical support services, Maniscalco said she noticed she could find and solve inefficiencies within her departments — a professional strong suit.

“I’ll admit I’m not particularly good at paying attention to the details. I’m a big-picture person. I’m a strategist. And I like to look at things from the high level,” Maniscalco said. “Norma, then, who had worked with me at Pfizer for 20 years knew this about me, and I think she wanted that as part of the foundation.”

Maniscalco though, who is modest about her accomplishments, is also sure to attribute the foundation’s success to Logan and her persisting spirit, as well as the hundreds of volunteers the foundation attracts and retains annually.

“You can’t attribute all that success to someone like me. It takes a lot of volunteers to make something like raising over $4 million happen,” Maniscalco said. “It hasn’t been just me. But I’ve been willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. Whatever it is. I’ll be on several committees for walk day. And on walk day, I’ll be there at 4:30 in the morning.”

A deep devotion to Norma

Looking forward, Maniscalco said she is now planning to spend more time with her children and grandchildren — “I have a really big family” — and plans to visit every presidential library with her husband, Phil, who is retired from banking and finance. Both she and he, she said, love history, especially presidential history.

But even with the planned change, Maniscalco admits she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to entirely step away from the TBBCF.

“My husband always jokes that I can never walk away,” she said, laughing. “He says, ‘The only way you can ever walk away is if we move to Florida or if you die.'”

“It’s hard to completely walk away,” Maniscalco continued. “I just can’t do it. I have that deep admiration and devotion to Norma that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

Plus, Maniscalco said, it’s also the women who take part in the walks every year who inspire her most.

“We’ve had women do their surgery and then tell their oncologist that they won’t start chemo until they have done the marathon with us. When you hang out with people like that, that’s pretty motivating,” Maniscalco said.

“Lots of times people will say, ‘Well, why do you this?” she continued. “Well, I do it because I can. Because I believe in it. It takes one person to help one other person to make a difference. That’s all it takes. You can’t take on the whole world. But you can take on one thing. And this is my one thing.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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