Pushing Back the Darkness

June 15, 2016

LLS’ Summer Solstice Celebration Turns 30

by Jill Gleeson

In some ways, it doesn’t see so long ago.

Back when the Central PA Leukemia Society’s first black-tie fundraiser debuted in 1987, a diagnosis of blood cancer was always nearly a death sentence. Only three out of 10 kids with leukemia or lymphoma would survive. But in those three decades, little enough time that the grandparents of some of the children lost are still here to remember them, the tables have turned. That’s why, despite the devastating losses of many families served by what is now known as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Central Pennsylvania, this is really a story of hope, of even triumph.

“When you’ve been doing something for a long time, you get a historical perspective,” says Kathy Krone, of law firm Smigel, Anderson and Sacks, who has co-chaired the gala – to be held on June 18 this year – with Lee Smigel since its inception. “Of course it’s terrible to be diagnosed, but the percentages have flip-flopped, it’s about a 90-percent survival rate now for kids. We’ve seen real results, but that doesn’t mean we can get complacent. If you’re in that 10 percent, those results don’t matter.”

Established in the mid-1970s by Smigel and a handful of other business leaders, the local chapter of the Leukemia Society was first feted at the Zembo Mosque. Dubbed Black Tie Bingo, the celebration raised $12,000.  Over the next decade, the event was held at The Hotel Hershey, the Marriott Hotel, Wonderful Wanda’s and Rillo’s Ballroom before settling in at The Hershey Lodge, its home for the past 20 years. In the early 1990s, as Krone recalls, the Summer Solstice theme was born – and stuck.

“We used to spend time talking about different themes, and then we thought that was a colossal waste of energy,” she notes. “We’ve always been about maximizing the bottom line. This was a group of business people who said we can do something to supplement what the chapter does – we have skills, we have networks. The idea behind Summer Solstice was that it’s the longest day of the year, so it’s about pushing back the darkness of cancer. And then we had a natural time frame to do it. The event’s right around that time in June each year, so people know when it’s coming up. We don’t spin our wheels trying to make it a different theme each year, and it creates its own brand that way.”

Summer Solstice has grown wildly over the years, a development to which Krone credits those touched by blood cancers; many volunteers on the roughly 20-member committee responsible for ensuring the gala is a success are family members grieving loved ones. The event now routinely nets hundreds of thousands of dollars for LLS each year. Those resources are used to further the organization’s mission to “cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life for patients and their families.”

To that end, much of the funds raised go toward research, clinical trials and providing support for patients and their families across 17 counties in Central Pennsylvania.

According to Krone, this year’s Summer Solstice looks to be as special as ever. Speakers will include 18-year-old Derick Myers, who lost his mother, Colleen Cleary-Myers, when he was just a baby, and John McNally, whose wife, Ginger, passed in December. And, as always, there will be a slideshow of photographs of area people who blood cancers have taken.

“It’s an event that we’re passionate about, with a serious purpose,” Krone says. “But this is not a stuffy fundraiser. There’s always a ‘mission moment,’ and everybody gets it, but it’s fun and exciting and has loads of things going on. Everybody in the world has been to a silent auction, but we pioneered it here! We have close to a thousand items, which the members of the committee collect all year long. We are the consummate beggars – people turn tail and run when they see me coming.”

Krone continues, “We’re celebrating 30 years of the gala, and at the end of the night on June 18, we will have raised cumulatively between $5.5 and $6 million. We think that’s positively extraordinary, and we lay it at the feet of this community. It’s a great place to live. If you act responsibly and selflessly and are hard-working, you get plenty of people to support you around here. This is Central Pennsylvania at its finest.”

This article appears in the June 2016 issue of Harrisburg Magazine