Carolyn Hamra’s life has been intertwined with the Cancer Institute for more than two decades.
Today, visitors to the Cancer Institute Auxiliary’s gift shop can find her ringing up sales, arranging merchandise or talking to a patient browsing between medical appointments.
But in the 1980s and early 1990s, she and her husband, Gerald F. Hamra, who helped build the Wendy’s restaurant franchise in Arkansas, were involved in fundraising for the Cancer Institute, and Gerald Hamra was on the Institute’s board.
Then Gerald Hamra was diagnosed with throat cancer, and the Institute took on new meaning as he became a patient, dying a year later in 1995.
“After my husband passed away, I had a friend who said, ‘It’s time for you to get back to your volunteering,’” Hamra said.
She chose the Cancer Institute.
“Everybody was always so good to me during what we went through. They were always there for support,” she said.
She became a gift shop fixture on Tuesday afternoons.
“It’s like paying it forward. I get more out of it than I give because everybody is so nice,” she said. “I enjoy working with the patients. Sometimes they just want an ear.”
Janie Lowe, director of Volunteer Services, said that role fits Hamra to a T.
“She is fabulous with patients. She’s very empathic and makes them feel at home. She makes people feel she is inviting them into her home,” Lowe said.
Some of that empathy comes from Hamra’s own experience as a patient. In 2000, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. “Again, the Cancer Institute was there for me all the way, and still is,” she said.
Some of the patients know her story, which includes her mother and two sisters being diagnosed with breast cancer, and ask how she has handled it. “I just tell them, ‘This, too, shall pass.’”
After years as a fundraiser, patient and volunteer at the Cancer Institute, she is most excited about the 2010 opening of the 12-story expansion.
“We will be second to none as far as cancer treatment. We are so lucky that this is right in our backyard. Not just Little Rock, but for the state. I think they’ve made an effort to have the finest doctors who are on the cusp of everything new, and we’re going to be up to the minute.”
Hamra has volunteered for numerous causes over the years, but today, with two grandchildren and another on the way, she has pared that list down to the gift shop and Cooks Tour, an annual Auxiliary fundraiser for research, patient care and education. “If I am available for anything at the Cancer Institute, I do it. It is just very special to me.”
She has recommended the Cancer Institute to friends and family inside and outside of Arkansas. She also has pledged $50,000 to go toward the expansion.
“The work that it has taken and the effort they have made to have people who are tops in their field is what makes it, and will continue to make it, as good as it is,” Hamra said.