Passionate About a Cause? Start a Nonprofit

A breast cancer survivor’s inspiring story and advice will show you how to create a group that can make a difference

by Nancy Collamer • Next Avenue
Photograph: By Lisa De Tullio Russell

For nearly 10 years, Mary Ann Wasil Nilan of Milford, Conn., played a policewoman fighting villains on "All My Children." But it was her real-life battle against breast cancer afterwards that gave Wasil Nilan her most meaningful professional role.

She's the founder, CEO and president of the Get in Touch Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is “to encourage gals of all ages to ‘Get in Touch’ with their bodies, information and each other in the crusade against breast cancer."

If you’re passionate about a cause, Wasil Nilan’s inspiring story might motivate you to follow her advice (below) and start a nonprofit of your own.

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

Wasil Nilan was just 39 when she received a diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer in 2004. At the time, she was working as director of development for a Catholic school and church. After undergoing chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery — as well as surgery to repair a previously undetected hole in her heart that caused a stroke during her treatments — she resolved to “turn lemons into lemonade.”

As the mother of two adolescent daughters, Betsy and Mary (and a younger son, Eddy), Wasil Nilan decided to find a way to teach young women to “get in touch” with their bodies so they’d be able to recognize any subtle changes that might signal illness and be comfortable enough to let an adult know if they did.

“I immediately began putting pen to paper,” recalls Wasil Nilan. Together with a group of friends, she developed the Get in Touch mission statement and began fundraising.
 
A Heartfelt Sacrifice
 
The Internal Revenue Service approved the group's nonprofit status in July 2007 and Wasil Nilan began her full-time job at the Get in Touch Foundation in 2008. “I worked there for quite some time with no salary, but it was a sacrifice worth making,” she says.

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