In 2004, Laurie Mezzalingua — a woman from Manlius who was 12 years into her journey with breast cancer — founded the Saint Agatha Foundation with a simple mission: to provide financial assistance to people in Central New York who are afflicted with breast cancer. The foundation provides unique “support, comfort and care” to those patients through financial assistance programs that allow them to “focus on their treatment, not their bills.”
Mezzalingua was born in Manlius, in 1968, the third of six children. She is described as a “lifelong learner” who, after graduating from Manlius Pebble Hill High School in 1986, went on to double-major in Chinese History and Communications at Boston University, where she earned her Bachelor’s Degree in 1990. Laurie returned home to Central New York after college and was active in her family’s business while following her own entrepreneurial spirit in becoming the founding president of Kajola Kristada, a manufacturing company on the island of Saint Kitts, W.I. in the Caribbean.
Mezzalingua was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 29. She became quickly and compassionately aware of gaps between the unique needs of patients fighting their battle with breast cancer … and meeting them. So, she lent her immutable voice and keen leadership skills to work to advocate passionately on behalf of herself and her fellow warriors fighting the disease for the support they so badly needed in their battle.
Mezzalingua’s remarkable impact led to her being named President of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a role in which she served for two years, while serving as a member of the foundation’s Board of Directors for six years. In 2005, Laurie was honored with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Outstanding Volunteer Award. Also in 2005, Laurie was named Citizen of the Year by Temple Adath Yeshurun back home in Syracuse, NY and was invited back to her alma mater, Manlius Pebble Hill, to deliver their commencement speech in 2006. When she spoke, she spoke to rap her audience in her ability to “see the remarkable” in her breast cancer diagnosis.
Said Mezzalingua, “There is more beauty, triumph and truth in an infusion room than you will ever see on a stage, in a stadium or in a song.”
While working with the Komen Foundation, Mezzalingua famously designed a magazine advertisement featuring the image of pink boxing gloves. Laurie assuredly considered breast cancer an opponent that was in for a fight. She was known to gift pink boxing gloves to other women battling the disease with a message to them that never wavered, “I’m in your corner. Stay strong and keep fighting!”
During that time in her life of such significant and sustained advocacy, Laurie Mezzalingua founded the Saint Agatha Foundation to bring her call to service “home” … to Central New York.
Mezzalingua is storied to have been deeply moved by learning of the story of Saint Agatha, the patron saint of breast cancer.
Agatha was born in Sicily in the third century to a fine family. She was a beautiful young woman who attracted many suitors but rejected them all to live a life of devotion to God. Her rejections included Magistrate Quintianus, who tried to exploit his rank and influence to force Agatha into marriage by threatening a sentence of torture, even death, if she refused. But, Agatha did refuse, invoking her faith and devotion. Quintianus has Agatha imprisoned for the rebuke, where she was subject to abuse by her captors that rose to the level of torture, including the removal of her breasts. She is known to have died from that torture in 251 AD. Agatha’s sainthood is celebrated each year with a feast day in her honor on Feb. 5. She is the saint considered to watch over all breast cancer patients.
Mezzalingua fashioned the logo for the Saint Agatha Foundation by putting pink boxing gloves on the image of the patron saint in hopes that it would inspire Central New Yorkers battling that opponent to “keep fighting!”
“Our foundation is named after her,” said Mezzalingua, “in dedication to her grace and her steadfast commitment to the fight.”
The Saint Agatha Foundation recognizes the presence of poverty permeating Central New York State, where the City of Syracuse, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is among the 10 “poorest places” in the United States and the City of Watertown, home to the U.S. Army base, Fort Drum, suffers a 40% poverty rate, compared to a poverty rate of 18% overall in New York State. The foundation provides financial support to breast cancer patients in Onondaga, Cortland, Cayuga, Madison, Oneida and Oswego counties in Central New York.
The Saint Agatha Foundation shares on its website that breast cancer is one of the most common cancers among women in New York State, where approximately 15,000 women and 150 men in the Empire State are diagnosed with the disease each year … and about 2,600 of New York’s women annually will lose their battles with the disease.
The Saint Agatha Foundation works in partnership with local hospitals, healthcare centers and service agencies to provide financial support to uninsured and under-insured Central New Yorkers fighting breast cancer. Funding covers treatment and recovery-related expenses, including testing, treatments, surgeries, medical and prescription co-payments, transportation to appointments, alternative treatments not covered by insurance, wound care systems, non-medical living expenses, prostheses and costs associated with breast reconstruction surgery.
Examples of the real-life impact Saint Agatha Foundation has on the everyday lives of breast cancer patients include a 44-year-old mother whose husband abandoned her and couldn’t pay the bills while undergoing treatment, so the foundation paid her electric bill for her; a 71 year-old woman who did not believe she could pursue a recommended treatment plan because of the cost of co-insurance, until the Saint Agatha Foundation helped her pay it; a terminal breast cancer patient for whom the Saint Agatha Foundation gave a grant to pay for a space in local hospice care; and a patient in her early 60s who regained both physical and emotional strength through the Laurie’s Hope program at her local YMCA, allowing her to swim again, which built back her stamina, provided a meditative time that relieved anxiety and left her stronger … ready to keep fighting! As of 2019, the foundation’s 10th anniversary, it had granted approximately $12.5 million to almost 7,000 Central New Yorkers fighting breast cancer.
Mezzalingua is described as having had the courage to challenge her “western doctors” beyond their ability to meet it, then accepting with grace their limits. Again, a lifelong learner and a scholar in Chinese history, Laurie explored and adopted Chinese therapies that she and her family believe extended her life beyond her prognosis by more than six years. Had she accepted the fate predicted by her western doctors and had it come to pass, she would not have lived to found The Saint Agatha Foundation.
The Saint Agatha Foundation website uses the word “departed” to define the day Laurie left this earth … this life. She made that departure on the Fourth of July, 2009. She left behind a loving family, Central New York community and her community of fellow warriors against breast cancer. She also left behind six God children, where she was well known for her affection for the authenticity and kindness of children. In honor of her affinity for and work with children, her parents gifted a building on the Manlius Prebble Hill campus that now houses all of the Pre-K and Kindergarten programs, named the Laurie Mezzalingua Early Education Center.
But — further to the many legacies Laurie left behind, not the least of which was the gift of the “beautiful life” she lived and devoted so much of to service – perhaps her greatest gift was her gift to fellow Central New Yorkers bearing up under the challenge of breast cancer — The Saint Agatha Foundation. And perhaps her greatest legacy is the work the foundation continues to do to lift the weight of the challenges of their battle off of the shoulders of those patients, making their journeys that much lighter … giving them the strength to “keep fighting!”
For more information about the Saint Agatha Foundation, visit www.saintagathafoundation.org, a comprehensive website from which much in this article was drawn. Information on making a gift or donation to support the work of the Saint Agatha Foundation can be found on the website via the pink tab labeled DONATE. Donations in the form of checks can be mailed to Saint Agatha Foundation c/o National Philanthropic Trust, 165 Township Line Road, Suite 1200, Jenkintown, PA 19046. Call the Saint Agatha Foundation at 888-878-7900. Spanish speakers call 315-466-4608.