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Vermont man hoping his quilt-making will help battle cancer

By Associated Press

Saturday, December 16, 2006 - Updated: 01:52 PM EST

CRAFTSBURY, Vt. - Sitting at his late wife’s sewing machine, stitching together small patches of fabric into a quilt, Frank Halden has a pretty audacious goal: eradicating cancer.

He wants to use the Internet to raise millions of dollars by auctioning quilts - those he makes himself and those that others donate - to help fund research into a cure for cancer. To him, the hope of raising $25 million isn’t unrealistic.

“We’re looking for the Doctor Salk of cancer,” said Halden, referring to Jonas Salk, who developed the first vaccine against polio.

He doesn’t see any reason why he can’t help create the Dr. Salk of cancer by selling quilts, the life’s passion of his wife before she died from lung cancer on April 18, 2003.

He points out that the Internet is worldwide, after all, so he doesn’t see why he can’t sell 1 million chances to win one of his quilts for $25 apiece. “This is a passion for me. I honestly believe I can help find a cure for cancer,” Halden said.

But he hasn’t found anyone whose enthusiasm for his project matches his own. He contacted the Lahey Clinic in Massachusetts, where wife Hallie-Jo Collins received much of her treatment before succumbing to lung cancer in April 2003.

“The problem is a lot of these people don’t think we’re for real,” Halden said. “The Lahey Clinic didn’t, but after we gave a donation, they were excited.”

The Lahey Clinic is far from alone. Big cancer research organizations don’t encourage individuals to create fundraising events on their own, preferring instead to rely on their own established events and channels.

“We get quite a few of these in a given year,” said Richard Lewis, spokesman for the American Cancer Society’s Vermont operations, with whom Halden consulted early on as he was planning his event. Lewis told Halden that the American Cancer Society doesn’t support such projects because it focuses on two major fund-raisers of its own each year.

“Anybody who wants to raise funds in support of the American Cancer Society mission can do so as part of Relay for Life or Daffodil Days, which are both well-established,” Lewis said.

Nonetheless, the society does get money from such “third-party,” or unsolicited contributions.

For the first four months of the New England division’s fiscal year, it has raised $245,000 through such unsolicited contributions and $584,000 from people making gifts in memory of someone. The division’s overall fund raising so far this fiscal year has totaled $7.2 million.

“We appreciate the funding that comes in unsolicited, but it’s important for people to understand that we feel we have the mechanisms,” Lewis said.

Not all research organizations have the same view.

The American Association for Cancer Research does work with individuals and groups who want to raise money for its research initiatives, said Bruce Makous, development officer.

Based in Philadelphia, the association works with people who’ve organized fundraising events, such as Karen Brooks, who raised $50,000 for the association and the National Brain Tumor Foundation. She raise the money by getting people to sponsor her when she scaled Mount Everest, where she planted a flag bearing the two groups’ names.

“At AACR at any given time, we have a number of these events going on around the country, even around the world,” Makous said. “That was one of the biggest of these kinds of events that we’ve ever supported and helped with. That one’s a special example.”

It’s the kind of thing that Halden so far can only dream of accomplishing, but he has every intention of exceeding the mountain climber’s total.

He’s a natural born salesman, having sold agricultural equipment and feed products.

“I’m a salesman. If I can’t sell to one-third of 1 percent of the population, I’m not doing a very good job,” he said, referring to his potential audience via the Internet.

Halden made one quilt last year, a colorful, queen-sized spread in the “Indian puzzle” design. It had a rainbow of colors - two shades of green, red, yellow, orange, purple and blue. Halden posted a picture of the quilt online and talked it up as much as he could but ended up raising just $2,800. But the woman from St. Albans who won the raffle donated the quilt back to Halden’s Quilt4Cancer so he can use it for publicity.

He made a new quilt - doing much of the work during Sunday afternoons, sitting in front of his television watching football games. “There were three games to watch,” he said.

The new one is a more traditional “flower basket” design that’s made up of diamond patterns within diamonds. The colors are more subdued.

Halden is a tough critic of his own work, pointing to a seam that didn’t come out straight. “Hallie-Jo would not have accepted this quilt,” he said.

Still, Halden soldiers on with his project, certain in his conviction that quilts strike such a chord in people that once they learn about it, they’ll buy their chances at winning one for cancer. “I tell people the quilts don’t have to be perfect. The science has to be perfect.”

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