By LIZ BUTTON
Sandy Samberg, founder of local cancer non-profit Sole Ryeders, is this year’s recipient of the Rye City Lions Club annual Community Service Award, the club announced last week.
Sole Ryeders & Friends, which raises money to provide and support local cancer-related programs, has taken in more than $1 million since its inception in 2007, working in concert with close to 200 friends, families and neighbors.
The group was born after Samberg took part in the 2006 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer as a tribute to her close friend, who succumbed to the disease that year. The second year, 35 Sole Ryeder participants raised $130,000 at the 39-mile annual Avon Walk.
Samberg’s friend Lynn Halpern joined the walking team in 2007 and later partnered with Samberg to run the group. Over time, the fundraising walk’s yearly success led to the establishment of a diverse team of women whose walk this year, on Oct. 19, drew 74 participants.
The team members, some of whom are cancer survivors, are supplemented by walkers from places like Harrison, White Plains and Armonk.
Now, in addition to supporting the countrywide Avon Foundation through the annual walk and corresponding fundraisers, Sole Ryeders’ mission also includes raising money to award grants to local cancer-related non-profits in the immediate geographical community.
Eventually, Samberg, a pediatric nurse practitioner who has lived with her family in Rye for 12 years, had to put her nursing job on hold to run Sole Ryeders as a full-time volunteer.
“Some people tell me I should get a real job so I won’t work so much,” she joked.
Samberg, 41, said she works as hard as she does because she is extremely passionate about the cause, even if it requires “working crazy hours” in the middle of the night and trying to fit in work around her two kids’ schedules.
Most Sole Ryeders volunteers are from Rye, but those who seek the group’s cancer support services come from all over Westchester.
“Now there is an instant support system for these women. If someone in the community is diagnosed, in minutes we get an email response with whatever it is they want,” she said. When women who are diagnosed with breast cancer seek help from Sole Ryeders, the non-profit organization can immediately connect them with a whole network of local individuals and groups that are ready and willing to offer their services and support.
Residents from Rye and other local communities help fund the group’s programs through personal donations, volunteering and by attending fundraisers. More than 80 local businesses have provided the Sole Ryeders with financial support and in-kind donations over the years.
In 2011, Samberg undertook a second charitable venture when she and Rye residents Kate Conn—herself a cancer survivor—and her husband Paul co-founded The Wig Exchange to provide women undergoing chemotherapy with high-quality wigs and practical advice and support.
With the slogan “The Gift of Hair From Women Who’ve Been There,” The Wig Exchange gives women from around the tri-state area access to high-quality, gently used wigs. These are necessary items for many women after chemotherapy-induced hair loss, but wigs can be expensive and are often not covered by insurance.
The project features an online wig salon, which has received more than 400 wigs donated from cancer survivors hailing from New York, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Florida and beyond. After a wig has been selected, the group’s program coordinator arranges a wig fitting, styles the wigs and cleans the wigs after each new owner.
In September, Samberg was profiled for the Huffington Post’s business section series profiling “go-getters” who have become “go-givers,” in a piece that focuses on Samberg’s part in starting the wig project. Previously, as a traditional “go-getter,” Samberg ran a business with her husband providing starter kits with tips and products to new parents.
The Rye City Lions Club’s James A. and Marian M. Shea Community Service Award was established in 2003 to honor one extraordinary volunteer who lives or works in Rye and has contributed to the quality of life for residents.
But Samberg said she would have liked the Lions to honor the entire organization instead of just herself in order to recognize those who have contributed so much time and energy to the cause, including Leslie Findlay, the captain of the Avon walk team for the last two years.
As a member of umbrella organization the Cancer Coalition of Westchester, the Sole Ryeders group can refer local women to a wide variety of services during their illness.
One such group is the Cancer Support Team out of Purchase. Sole Ryeders donates to the organization’s financial assistance fund, which pays for various cancer treatment-related expenses that insurance doesn’t cover, like certain medicines, transportation to treatment, and helpful equipment such as shower chairs.
“A lot of these patients just don’t have the money to cover those types of costs. So many things are out-of-pocket for some people, it really just pushes them over,” Samberg said.
Sole Ryeders also provides funding for Gilda’s Club of Westchester’s teen program in White Plains, Yorktown-based group Support Connection’s one-on-one peer counseling and phone counseling, and the Livestrong cancer physical fitness program at the Rye YMCA.
Samberg said she is currently working with Rye High School’s breast cancer awareness club to launch a variety of new projects.
“I have a lot of ideas,” she said, “and my thought is, well, if it fails, at least I gave it a try,” she said.
Samberg will receive the award at the Rye City Lions Club Annual Charter Night Dinner at the American Yacht Club on Nov. 22.