The mission statement of the Sisters Network Solano County states that they are “committed to increasing local and national attention to the devastating impact that breast cancer has in the African-American community.”
For CEO and founder Gloria Wade-Lessier, that statement is profoundly personal. She founded the Vallejo-based nonprofit organization, an affiliate of a national network, in 2002 after fighting cancer on three separate occasions.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time in 1993 and I was a healthy woman as far as I knew,” Wade-Lessier said. “Two years later, I was diagnosed again and then once more in 2000. I never thought I would have cancer and didn’t know anything about it. I was scared and didn’t think I would live.”
Modern medicine helped heal Wade-Lessier’s body, but her spirit was nurtured by people in her life she calls her “golden nuggets.”
“The blessing in my life then was that I was married to my now-late husband Nathaniel and had been for 30-something years. I also had two children, my mother was alive then and I had an inner circle of friends – real friends. Oh, and I can’t forget God.”
Wade-Lessier became aware of Sisters Network on a national level when she moved to Las Vegas and became a secretary for them. Once she moved back to Vallejo, she started a chapter, which is now the only one in California. While their targeted population is African-American women, they help anyone. The free services the organization offers fall under three headings: education, advocacy and support.
“You can come into our resource center and get educated. Say you are newly diagnosed, want to know what to expect, what type of cancer it is, what the available treatments are – we get that information for you. You can also research it yourself, but many people are so nervous and upset they just need that support,” Wade-Lessier said.
“When it comes to advocacy, if a client, or sister as we call them, wants someone to come with them to a doctor’s appointment and be a listening ear with a notepad, digital recorder or just be present, we do that. When it comes to support, we have monthly support groups and sometimes clients call from the hospital who are lonely and afraid or just want us to bring them cookies and sit with them, and we do that as well,” Wade-Lessier said.
Sisters Network Solano County also makes presentations about breast cancer in the community, participates in fundraisers and members sit on roundtables about surviving cancer, throughout the Bay Area. One major accomplishment took years of stick-to-itiveness.
“In our area there are no free clinics like in Oakland or Berkeley. For many people, their only medical option is the emergency room,” Wade-Lessier said. “I began to ask local hospitals if they could give free mammograms to women who could not receive them for whatever reason, but it wasn’t happening.”
Wade-Lessier refused to take no for an answer and kept trying to make her dream become reality.
“Finally, in 2012, Kaiser Permanente partnered with us to give free mammograms. Oh my god, what a moment. They would come out in the community on site at an event and all any uninsured, underinsured, underprivileged, or whatever women needed was some sort of ID,” Wade-Lessier said. “We had to provide transportation to the hospital and we partnered with Emmanuel Temple Apostolic Church. It was a historic moment in Vallejo and it happened again last year.”
The organization’s resource center is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, but the hours will expand in February when they begin enrolling people who need insurance in Covered California.
Wade-Lessier’s devotion to helping others comes from a place of deep gratitude and responsibility.
“I was diagnosed at age 48 and I am now 69 and have been free of cancer since 2001. I owe the universe my service as I was spared my life,” Wade-Lessier said. “We are all about thriving and letting people know what resources are available and how we got through it. We let them know that they are not alone.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sisters Network Solano County
301 Georgia St., Suite 255, Vallejo