The doctors couldn’t tell Pam Baker what was wrong with her 2-year-old son, Gavin. From the time he started eating solid foods at six months old, he regularly suffered severe abdominal pains and doctors offered a range of diagnoses: lactose intolerance, ulcers, and celiac disease. After two years of medical appointments, there was still no definitive answer. Six months pregnant with her second son, Baker decided to do some research on her own and came back with a preliminary diagnosis that seemed to fit Gavin’s symptoms. She suspected he had cystic fibrosis. And it turned out she was correct.
CF is a genetic disorder that damages the lungs, digestive system, pancreas, and other organs. It is an orphan disease, meaning it affects fewer than 200,000 people across the country. Because it’s relatively rare, CF is not a priority for medical researchers when it comes to the pursuit of better treatment options or a potential cure. One public awareness challenge: CF is not an obvious condition. By outward appearance, patients don’t seem unhealthy.
When she learned about the genetic disease in 2002, Baker worried about her new baby’s prospects. Sadly, her fears were confirmed. “Within a three-week period, I went from knowing nothing about cystic fibrosis, not even what it meant, to having two kids with the disease,” Baker says.
Baker and her husband Jon were in shock as they contemplated what it meant to have two children who, at that time, would not be expected to live past their early 30s. Eventually, the suburban Atlanta couple’s anguish turned into life-affirming action.
The Bakers and several of their friends came up with an idea for a St. Patrick’s Day party that also raised money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. It was 2009, seven years after her boys’ diagnosis, that the first ShamRockin’ For A Cure was launched. Baker describes the one-night, $100 ticket event as a “big throwback frat party for our generation,” except with food and top-shelf alcohol from many of the Atlanta area’s best restaurants. The gathering of 150 guests raised $8,000, but Baker and the ShamRockin’ team had no idea that more help was on the way.
And neither did REALTOR® Lara Dolan, with Keller Williams Realty Consultants in Roswell, Ga., when she decided to attend the party. Dolan was there to support friends whose daughter died from CF.
But, as Dolan puts it, that first ShamRockin’ “grabbed her by the ears and never let go.”
“[I knew] we could take this tiny little party and we could really help bring it to the next level,” Dolan says. “My kids were little, and I just couldn’t imagine worrying about them like that. Catching a cold could be the last cold they ever catch—it was unfathomable to me. I think if you’re lucky and you’re fortunate, you can and you should [help], right?”
She jumped right in and used her connections in the local beverage and food industry to get more vendors involved. Over the years, she hopped from committee to committee, expanding the army of ShamRockers. Her bubbly spirit helped to empower people left and right, getting them excited to put on an event that’s a party first and a fundraiser second.
Eight years since the first party, Dolan’s commitment to promoting the ShamRockin’ mission has become a state of mind, according to Molly Taggart, associate executive director for the Georgia chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Through Dolan’s efforts, ShamRockin’ has grown from 150 people in a lounge to a $500,000 sold-out fundraiser that is capped at 1,500 attendees. During her time with ShamRockin’, Dolan has helped raise more than $2.5 million for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation through sponsorships, increased attendance, and the donations of local community members and businesses.
Her secret? “It’s being willing to do something different,” Dolan says. “I get bored easily. I just like new ideas. If it’s reasonable, I’m usually game to try it. I just don’t like the status quo.”
The tight-knit CF community in Georgia comprises 780 patients, Taggart says, and all of them need people like Dolan out in the community fighting for them, since they can’t do it themselves. Her “bulldog personality” and stellar ability to turn ideas into reality has made her a crown jewel for the CF Foundation.
“I joke that she’s like the mayor,” Taggart says. “What she’s done for this event is made it bigger than just an event. I don’t know what ShamRockin’ would look like without her. Truly, there’s so much of her in it.”
Outside of ShamRockin’ season, Dolan organizes related fundraising and networking events that cultivate participants’ enthusiasm and instill a feeling of being part of a greater mission. Because of Dolan’s extensive community outreach, people who would have never known about CF are now offering themselves and their businesses to support patients and research. Dolan is a steadfast supporter of her community—she only dines out at restaurants that are ShamRockin’ sponsors.
“I like to say our money is found money,” Dolan says. “Our money is the twenty dollars you found in the dryer and went, ‘Oh look! We had no idea that was coming.’ And now, all of a sudden, it’s two million dollars’ worth.”
Dolan says her day job is just as energizing as her volunteer work. Constantly meeting new people and hearing new ideas keeps her away from the status quo. When it’s peak ShamRockin’ season, Dolan’s business partner, Tracey Craft, knows to step up and take on the extra work. Year-round, however, Dolan says her volunteer work likely brings her and her partner more business opportunities. “Because of [my] volunteer work, I get to know a lot more people in the community on different levels.”
“They say one of the most powerful things you can do when you’re in a room is to be the person who’s introducing people to each other and making connections for people,” Dolan says.
Promising clinical trial results were announced in July that include therapies meant to better address the underlying cause of CF. The studies show the potential of these next-generation therapies to be significantly more effective than current treatment regimens.
This is just the kind of news that cheers the army of ShamRockers, a legion of positivity themselves, in their forward march to beat the disease. “Doesn’t everybody want to be on a winning team? Don’t you want to be able to look back at part of your legacy and say in some small, small way, that we helped?” Dolan says. “There are so many diseases that are worth investing in—this one is just so close.”