Small Town, Big Hearts

updated 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For the past two years, Helen Van Ornum has marched alongside her neighbors at the annual breast-cancer walk in Gouverneur, N.Y. (pop. 4,500). And though she recently completed radiation treatment for her own cancer, she vowed that this year's walk on May 15 would be no different. "If I can't make it," said Van Ornum, 61, "someone will help me."

That could be a motto for the women of this tiny town in one of New York's poorest counties. Three years ago, after the death of a friend, Marilyn LaPierre came up with the idea for a cancer walk with a twist: The money from Gouverneur's event would go not to research but directly to the local women battling breast cancer. Recipients can use funds for everything from medicine to wigs to babysitting for their kids while they undergo treatment. The principle is simple, says LaPierre, 53: "If somebody's suffering from an illness, there will be dinner on the table for them."

So far 38 women have benefited from the three half-mile walks organized by the town's Business Women's Council. They've raised a total of about $70,000. There's no means test, and as yet, no one who's asked for help has been turned away. Van Ornum's biweekly income dropped from $1,100 to $319 when her illness forced her to give up her job as a nurse. "They paid our household bills, the deductible on insurance, travel expenses, our electricity bills," she says. "It's been a godsend."

LaPierre, who runs a roofing company with her husband, Roger, 55, was president of the Women's Council when her friend Donna Weldon died from breast cancer at 53 in 2000. Around the same time, a breast-cancer survivor came to talk to the group, and LaPierre had her lightbulb moment. She and the other women discussed which organization should receive any money raised and soon concluded that "there was a greater need" in their hometown. Also right there was a wellspring of generosity that has made LaPierre very proud. "We're not perfect—there are skirmishes between neighbors sometimes," she says. "But everyone cares about everybody else."

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