This article was published as part of #GivingTuesday's #WomenWhoGive series, which celebrates women who give back in their communities.
Gael Garbarino Cullen is the founder and chair of the Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Run/Walk which is in its 21 st year of raising awareness and funds for heart disease research, to date more than $400,000. Read her story below about what inspired her to found the Run/Walk and how her giving is impacting her community.
How do you give back?
I give back in many ways, through my churches, as a mentor and former board member for ABCD (After Breast Cancer Diagnosis), a breast cancer support organization, and through a variety of other community organizations where I serve as a board member. However, the one entity of which I am most proud is the Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Run/Walk, which I founded in 1997 to raise money for heart research in memory of my late husband.
What inspired you to start giving?
As it relates to the Cullen Run/Walk specifically, here’s my story:
My husband, Steve, a loving husband, father of four young daughters and an avid runner, died of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia at the age of 40 in October of 1995. Essentially, some undiagnosed electrical trigger shut off his heart with no warning. The following January, to mark his birthday, my family and several friends got together to go for a run in Steve’s memory. On that day, Steve’s brother suggested that we should make this run an annual event, invite others and see if we could raise a few dollars for heart disease research. From this idea, the first annual Steve Cullen Healthy Heart Run/Walk was officially born. The very first year, to my amazement, we drew 167 crazy people who were willing to run or walk outdoors in Wisconsin in January! The event has grown every year to where we now draw approximately 700 people and raise an average of $40,000+ annually, every penny of which funds lifesaving heart research at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
What does giving mean to you? Why do you continue to give your time, talents, money, or more to your community?
I have always believed that the fabric of any community is woven by the individuals who live, work, play and raise families within them. The stronger the commitment of every person to their community, the stronger we all are and the better able to serve those who, at any point in time, might be vulnerable to illness, poverty, unemployment, loss of a loved one and the multitude of challenges that can imperil any of us at some point along life’s journey. I’ve been there myself. As a young mother of daughters ages 3 through 9 now suddenly left without my life’s partner, I was supported in ways large and small by family, friends and my community. Today my daughters are successful, educated, well-balanced women due, in no small part, to the strength and support of our community. We owe it to each other to give back, to provide service. This has been a guiding principle in my life and one that I have, I hope, instilled in my daughters.
What would you tell others (women and men) who are looking to start giving back? Share a piece of advice will help them get started.
When one gives, we all benefit. Sometimes it’s easy to convince ourselves that there isn’t much that one individual can do, but that’s not true. By taking that first step, by setting an example to others, change happens. Be the source of positive change and a light to others to follow.
Please share a favorite moment or story from when you volunteered or donated to an organization.
I think my proudest moments are when I look out over the sea of runners and walkers who show up for our event every year, knowing that they are helping their own heart health while contributing to medical research that can help so many others. But one moment, in particular, stands out. It was a couple of years ago, at the starting line of our run/walk when a young father introduced me to his 8-year old daughter. She had undergone countless heart surgeries in her young life and wanted to give back to the battle against heart disease, so she had single-handedly recruited family members and friends to join her team at the Cullen Run/Walk. Talk about putting a face on the cause!