A Life Beyond Cancer

By REMY SISK
Contributing Writer

For Tonya Cook, there is rarely a day that is ever the same. For the last seven years, she has been working at Gilda’s Club Louisville as the Chief Development Officer. Gilda’s Club is a national organization that provides outreach and support for patients and families affected by cancer. The Louisville branch, which currently serves roughly 1,200 members with 140 free monthly programing events, opened in 2007 with Cook in the same position. When asked what exactly her day-to-day entails, her immediate response was, “I make a lot of phone calls. I’m on the phone a lot!” Her current position, however involved, is in truth the result of a long and deeply emotional journey.

Cook was born and raised in Fairview, Tennessee, but moved to Kentucky to attend Western Kentucky University in 1989. She graduated with a B.S. in Textile and Apparel Merchandising in 1993 and soon met her husband, Drew, an Oldham county native. The couple married in 1996 and received devastating news just eight months into their marriage: Cook’s mother had been diagnosed with cancer of an unknown origin. Because the cancer had metastasized so acutely, oncologists were unable to detect its starting point.

“I had not been married that long,” Cook recounts. “I packed my bags; I was working in retail sales at the time, and I quit my job and moved back home to be with my mom and support her in her cancer journey.” In a tragic turn of events, just one week after Cook arrived in Tennessee, her mother passed away. It was a very difficult time as Cook and her husband remained with her family for the rest of the year following her mother’s death.

Her husband, however, soon was offered a job in Bowling Green, and the couple moved back to Kentucky. Cook, however, could not shake the effect of her mother’s passing and was consequently inspired to seek employment that would allow her to make a difference. “I started looking for other ways I could be involved and give back to the cancer community,” she remembers from her early days in Bowling Green. That led to applying to the American Cancer Society branch in Lexington, where she was quickly hired on as a Development Representative in 2001.

Cook lived apart from her husband for a brief period of time before he joined her in Lexington. She enjoyed great success at the American Cancer Society and was promoted to Associate Director in 2007. That same year, coincidentally, Gilda’s Club was on the cusp of opening a branch in Louisville. Karen Morrison, now CEO, then Development Director, of Gilda’s Club Louisville, invited Cook to Louisville to give Cook a presentation on what was to come with Gilda’s. Morrison then hired Cook as the new Development Director, a position eventually re-titled Chief Development Officer. The position brought Cook and her husband to Louisville where she was able to watch the doors of Gilda’s Club open just months later in October of 2007.

“One of the great things about working at Gilda’s Club is that every day is different,” Cook says with a chuckle. As the Chief Development Officer, there is very little Cook is not involved in. Although her primary task is fundraising, she works in all areas of the clubhouse. Along with other Gilda’s Club employees, Cook can often be found doing an array of things, from running member orientation, and giving tours of the clubhouse, to actually staffing the clubhouse and countless other duties.

But this kind of dynamic position is just what Cook loves about Gilda’s Club. Referring to the building’s lower levels, as opposed to the offices on the top floor, Cook exudes, “I get to go downstairs every day, and that’s a really unique position to be in. I get to see what all my hard work goes toward, along with all the generous donations from the community.” By floating around all areas of Gilda’s Club, Cook sees firsthand how the donations she attains directly affect members’ lives.

As part of her primary job Cook actively oversees all fundraising events, including Gilda’s Night, which is happening Nov. 14 at Bittners. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Gilda’s Night, which was started at She of Louisville to raise funds for the opening of Gilda’s Club Louisville. Over the past ten years, the event has raised a staggering two million dollars, and Cook has been there, coordinating the event for the last seven years. Cook supervises the entire event, but laughs at the idea that she does it all: “I don’t do this by any stretch of the imagination by myself.” Instead, she works closely with a committee and the event chair, Cindy Carcione. Cook is ebulliently excited about this year’s event and hopes it will be the most successful yet, as it is the organization’s biggest fundraising night of the year.

Through all of this activity, Cook does somehow manage to have free time, which she most enjoys spending with her family or reading. Her 4-year-old son is a particular point of joy in her life, as she fondly explains that through October she read him Julia Donaldson’s “Room on the Broom” more times than she can remember.

At work, Cook greatly enjoys her position at Gilda’s Club, and is immensely thankful for what she gets to do every day. When asked what her favorite aspect of working at Gilda’s Club is, she responds earnestly, “I get to do something with my passion that makes a difference. I’m passionate about making a difference in people’s lives because of my own cancer journey that I traveled with my mom.” Although more difficult than she ever could have imagined, Cook’s experience with her mother’s passing has led her to a position where she feels an enviable amount of fulfillment on a daily basis. “It’s a privilege and an honor to work alongside people as they travel their cancer journey,” she asserts. “I truly do feel privileged because I can see the difference we’re making in people’s lives every day.”