October 1 Unveiling of Starfish Project to Kick Off National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in RI

PAWTUCKET, RI– The Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation has announced that it will officially unveil its Starfish Project at a press conference on Tuesday, October 1 at 10AM [Skybridge on Level B at Providence Place Mall]. The Starfish Project is the Foundation’s largest healing arts program to-date, and the captivating seven-panel art installation comprises 5,000 clay starfish that were handmade by individuals affected by breast cancer—patients, survivors, family members, friends, and medical caregivers.

“The premise behind the Starfish Project is reaching one person at a time,” said Maureen DiPiero, community outreach coordinator at the Foundation. “We do whatever we can to meet the needs of each person affected by breast cancer, whether it’s through the free programs we offer or connecting them with other available resources in the community.”

DiPiero explains that the project’s idea originated aboard the Hope Bus, a 38-foot recreational vehicle the Foundation uses to directly offer free programming, support, and education to Rhode Islanders in their own communities.

“During a Hope Bus visit to Wakefield in December 2010, we met a 62 year-old woman who had lost both her mother and grandmother to breast cancer,” recalled DiPiero. “She was self-employed without health insurance and told us that she could not afford a breast exam. So we connected her with Maria Hudson from the Women’s Cancer Screening Program (WCSP), who was aboard the Hope Bus that day.” The WCSP, part of the Rhode Island Department of Health and partially funded by the Foundation, provides access to free clinical breast exams for low-income, as well as un- and underinsured women in the state.

“Before she left the Hope Bus, the woman told us that she could now sleep peacefully because she didn’t have to worry that she was dying of undiagnosed breast cancer,” said DiPiero. “Gary Calvino, the Foundation’s director of development, looked at me and Maria Hudson and said, ‘that was our first starfish.’”

The concept behind the Starfish Project, which is based on an interpretation of the Star Thrower essay by Loren Eiseley, grew from an “aha moment” months later, according to DiPiero. While waiting for a meeting at the Foundation to discuss ideas for the latest project, Jill Buffington—a local artist who has spearheaded some of the Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s healing arts programs—was making starfish out of clay as part of a display for a waterfront restaurant in New Bedford. “That’s when the idea presented itself,” said DiPiero.

Since then, the Foundation has invited people to make clay starfish both at its Pawtucket location and on the Hope Bus. “We equip them with a bucket of items that includes clay tools, toothpicks, pink ribbons, and straws,” said DiPiero, who indicated that it typically takes 15 minutes to make a clay starfish—creations that range in size from 2” to 6” in diameter.

“Each starfish holds a part of someone’s journey with breast cancer. Some starfish carry the names of family members or friends. Others bear personal messages or words of hope,” added DiPiero, “While making the starfish, people would share their stories with each other and us, and each starfish symbolizes one of those stories.”

According to Maria Gemma, the Foundation’s executive director, such stories and connections—though sometimes difficult to measure quantitatively and qualitatively—impact the healing and coping process. “As one of the free healing arts programs we offer, the Starfish Project is meant to allow people in the community affected by breast cancer to reflect and also connect with others meaningfully,” said Gemma. “We have even seen family members open up to one another in a way they have never done before.”

The October 1 press conference and unveiling ceremony will mark the opening of the Starfish Project’s art installation to the public. The installation will be on display indefinitely at the Providence Place Mall’s Skybridge, also the location of the October 1 event.

“The Starfish Project is another way to see the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation’s impact on our local community,” said Stephanie Rice, marketing manager of the Providence Place Mall. “We are proud to house the art installation and are excited to welcome Providence Place patrons to visit the inspiring display, the meaning of which is sure to resonate with so many people.”

“Over the past two years, we have shared a lot of tears and laughter through our Starfish Project,” explained DiPiero. “We are truly fortunate that people have entrusted us with personal stories during a difficult time in their lives.”

She concluded, “The most powerful part for me was seeing so much emotion expressed and people’s fears alleviated.”

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