When it comes to helping people who are battling cancer, Sharon Yonker sees purple.
According to the retired alternative educator for Grand Haven Area Public Schools, the violet hue is symbolic of the disease that impacts all people and the families who stand beside them. Yonker is helping them on their cancer journey by spreading across the Grand Haven area something known as “Purple Pride.”
For the past 10 years, Yonker has led the way to provide cancer patients with financial and community support. And that’s why she recently received this year’s Lighthouse Award.
Each year, Grand Haven’s mayor — in this case, Robert Monetza — selects a resident from the city’s 11,000 or so residents to receive the annual award for projecting a spirit of accomplishment and a triumph of excellence over indifference.
Making things happen
The Lighthouse Award alludes to the Sept. 12, 1962, speech President John F. Kennedy delivered at Rice University, when he challenged Americans to walk the surface of the moon by the end of the 1960s, not because it is easy, but because it is hard, according to Grand Haven’s City Manager Pat McGinnis.
“This is all about service above self, and doing things that need to be done,” says McGinnis. “You don’t take them for granted. They make things happen.”
Yonker clearly is someone who makes things happen. She’s co-founder of BUCS Pride, a nonprofit that was launched after she and two other women attended a Pink Arrow Pride Conference in Lowell High School in 2011. Pink Arrow started as a football game with the players and fans wearing pink for cancer awareness and support. Four years later, the program had raised more than $700,000 that went toward constructing a Gilda’s Club in Lowell.
Inspired, Yonker, who graduated from Grand Haven High School in 1962 and Central Michigan University in 1966, says BUCS Pride helps by raising funds for cash-strapped cancer patients and organizing the delivery of baskets to people recently diagnosed with cancer.
Getting students involved
Her can-do efforts spill over in other ways, as well. She has inspired Grand Haven Area Public Schools sports team members, who help out with cancer patients’ household tasks — the kind young people tend to balk at doing at home.
Somehow, it’s different when Yonker is involved.
“What she really does is show our kids how to serve and support others,” says Andrew “Andy” Ingall, Superintendent of Grand Haven Area Public Schools. “It’s her personal passion. She’s a great role model to our students.”
Yonker says it’s the students who deserve the praise.
“We’ve had the wrestling team rake somebody’s yard, and another lady’s husband died and needed wood chopped to heat her house,” says Yonker.
BUCS Pride — which is also known in the Grand Haven area as Purple Pride — extends to GHAPS’s sports teams and bands, where the color purple is on display in myriad ways. Every year in the fall, winter and spring, one game for each sport features student athletes adorned in purple: band musicians wear purple scarves, football players wear purple jerseys, diving teams don purple swim caps and so on with volleyball, water polo, and swimming.
Snacks, camping, and T-shirts
Yonker also helps collect individually wrapped snacks during sporting events that spectators donate for patients who are undergoing chemotherapy treatment at the Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan, as well as their caregivers.
Yonker’s efforts also have raised funds so individuals, couples, and families can enjoy camping at Blue Bird Cancer Retreats in Spring Lake. She also can be found selling purple “BUCS Pride” T-shirts, with the option of having the name of someone who died of cancer or is in remission printed on the back for a $100 contribution.
Then there are Friday nights when the community is encouraged to take part in a Community Cares walk around the track in honor of those who have died or are in remission.
Later this year, Yonker intends to sell purple T-shirts with the Roman numeral X to signify this is the 10th year of BUCS Pride, with all Grand Haven public schools printed on it for $10. More details are forthcoming on BUCS Pride Facebook page
Yonker’s public support for cancer patients stems from personal experience. Her daughter, Marci, died eight years ago of the disease at age 35. Yonker’s mother also has battled the disease.
Yonker’s trophy has significant local connections.
During construction of the Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium that opened to the public in summer 2018, Department of Public Works staff preserved ancient timbers found beneath the rubble of Grand Haven’s 50-year-old Waterfront Stadium.
The trophy, created by Grand DPW Crew Leader Trevor Baykowski, is set upon a chunk of wood that predates any living person in Grand Haven. On top of the wood is a figurine of the Grand Haven south pier lighthouse. A Grand Haven Coast Guard City Challenge Coin is embedded on the surface of the timber.
The honor Yonker received is tinged with irony.
“I didn’t even know there was an award for this,” says Yonker.