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Wings Week gears up to help cancer patients

| April 25, 2007 12:00 AM

By KYLE McCLELLAN Western News Reporter

After giving away more than $106,000 to area cancer patients last year, Connie Wood and her nonprofit organization are preparing for another season of events and town walks, all to raise money for those diagnosed with cancer.

Wings Regional Cancer Support helps defray out-of-pocket expenses associated with cancer treatment, like housing, transportation and meals.

To date, Wings has given almost $800,000 to 1,180 patients. The average age of recipients is 60, but the organization has served patients as young as 16.

"Every penny we collect goes to the cancer patient. We have no officers, we have no administration, it stays local. We know all the people that the money helps." Wood said.

The efforts will be most visible during Wings Week, starting May 5, with Cinco de Mayo at the Yaak Tavern and Youth Trap Shoot on Saturday. A bowling tournament will take place Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Lincoln Lanes in Libby and Trojan Lanes in Troy. Wednesday is Dollar Day, when volunteers in clown suits hit the downtown streets.

Last year's Mexican buffet at the Yaak, a one night event, raised $12,000.

Three communities are involved — Yaak, Troy and Libby — all of which coordinate efforts during Wings Week. Lincoln County raised $55,000 last year, which is a record for this community, Wood said.

A cancer diagnosis is the only qualification needed for financial support. The one-page application is simple. It asks for identification, a description of the illness, the involved physicians and any sources of funding.

"It doesn't matter who you are, how much money you make — if you have cancer, you get these funds," Wood said. "I don't know of anyone that was ever turned down."

Most grants patients receive are "maxed out" at $1,800 because of radiation treatment.

Wings also gives money for lodging, fuel and $15 a day for food.

Part of the board is an allocation committee that awards grants every month.

The patient fills out an application and the treasurer writes a check to the patient.

Checks are sent out once a month, but funds can be transferred right away in an emergency.

An anonymous $15,000 grant in 1997 provided the humble beginnings for what is now the Northwest's most dedicated and efficient organization helping those afflicted with cancer. Many have even confused it for a national organization.

"Not everyone knows that it began in little Libby, Mont.," Wood said.

Cancer patients living in northwest Montana confront geographical difficulties that many others do not. The closest major medical center is more than 90 miles away in Kalispell.

"These people are really struggling and they don't have the money to travel. We need to do something about it," Wood said.

Wood, 66, is a breast cancer survivor. She founded Wings 10 years ago with the support of her physician and a Kalispell social worker.

In the beginning, Wood and her friends met at the White Night Pub in Libby and marked on an atlas the area that cancer patients were coming from.

"When we connected the dots, it formed an eagle," Wood said. "There's something about wings that are covering and comforting."

Wings volunteers are mostly cancer survivors or families of survivors. They blanket Libby in full force during Wings Week. The walkers are dressed in clown suits. Rescue workers roll around in emergency vehicles, sounding sirens that Wood hopes will remind the community of the emergency cancer patients confront each day.

"You'll see the magic for yourself, what can happen in a small town when people know everyone," Wood said.