Gilda's Club South Jersey is celebrating its tenth anniversary year with some big changes, including getting a new leader for the first time since its inception.

Michelle Chalmers, 41, of Red Bank, Monmouth County, was chosen to replace Executive Director Sarah Griffith, who has taken a job with the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School. Chalmers has a background in the pharmaceutical industry, women's health care and animal welfare.

Griffith, who has headed the local Gilda's chapter since its founding in 2002, will be working on a program that will train dogs to do diagnostic sniffing, Chalmers said.

"Everybody's laughing, because I'm coming out (of working with animals) and she's going into it," Chalmers said. Chalmers has four dogs, which she adopted while development director for the Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter in East Hanover, Morris County.

"It's a hazard of the job. You end up adopting all the ones that are unadoptable. The old ones, blind ones, and deaf ones," she said.

Chalmers has a personal reason for wanting to work for a cancer support organization.

"My father had a very rare form of cancer, and passed away when he was 26," Chalmers said. "I was just a baby. I grew up without a dad, and my mom was widowed at 25 years old. She never remarried."

Chalmers started her new job last week, just in time to unveil a new marketing campaign showing Gilda's Club is for everyone.

"There's always been a myth that Gilda's Club is just for women," Gilda's Program Director Erin McAllister said. "We have tons of programs for men, for all ages, and for caregivers."

"There was no need to hire talent," said Phyllis Lacca, who is president of Gilda's board of directors. Instead, McAllister got the word out to members, who came out in large numbers to audition. Lacca is also president of Masterpiece Advertising in Absecon, which donated its services in creating television, radio, newspaper, outdoor billboard and direct mail ads.

The 13 members chosen for the campaign are all people living with cancer, or the spouses, children, or friends of people who have had cancer. They come to Gilda's for support, education and fun activities like yoga, McAllister said.

Larry Stone, of Mays Landing, is one of those chosen by the campaign's creators. His wife, Anna, has had 13 surgeries for her cancer since diagnosis in 2008, but is free of it now, he said.

"I come (to Gilda's) to support her. We learn to be caretakers," he said, adding he lost his brother Joe Emmons, of Mays Landing, to cancer in 2002 when Emmons was just 47. He lost his younger sister Candi Tietjen, 62, of Ocean City to cancer last December.

Gilda's Club members are not "cancer victims," the television commercial makes clear.

One after another, the men, women and children of all ages, races and backgrounds look into the camera and tell viewers: "I'm not giving up." "I'm not losing hope." "I'm not a cancer victim." "I'm a person living with cancer."

For information about Gilda's Club South Jersey, 700 New Road, in Linwood, call 609-926-2699 or visit Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:


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