By Rich Polt
Published May 06, 2013
In the world of grassroots, breast cancer organizations, The Tyanna Foundation is the Benny Hill of nonprofits. With slogans like “help keep motor-boating alive” and “save the girls,” Tyanna is an organization that combines humor, irreverence, and sass, with a healthy dose of “f-you cancer!” sprinkled on top.
Named after Tyanna Barre O’Brien who lost her battle with breast cancer at the age of 48, the foundation was launched in 1999 by Tyanna’s five daughters. Anne O’Brien, the oldest of the sisters and a Baltimore, MD resident, quickly built a presence for the organization here in “Charm City,” launching the now locally-iconic event, BreastFest, and telling women to “check your boobs, Hon!”
Since its inception, The Tyanna Foundation (with its ALL volunteer staff) has hosted successful “cocktails-for-a-cause” style events. It has raised more than $1,000,000 for The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, along with other worthy organizations in three sister regions (Philadelphia, PA; Athens, GA; and Southern New Jersey). In 2008, Mercy renamed its imaging center: The Tyanna O’Brien Center for Women’s Imaging. Guess what? … grassroots works.
As Anne describes below, she and her sisters took personal tragedy and used it to fuel something personally meaningful and of tremendous value for their extended communities. And while that alone is noteworthy, I really appreciate how they use good old-fashioned brand-building to infuse Tyanna with some edge and personality, which is ultimately helping to drive greater impact. Thanks Anne for answering our Talking GOOD questions.
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
My purpose in life is to help people, be a good role model for others and make breast cancer suck less for the people who have to endure it.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
The Tyanna Foundation is all volunteer, so one way it has changed me is that I now have a “real job” that also allows me to do my volunteer work (e.g., where I can make my own hours, meet a donor in the middle of the day, or attend a meeting at the hospital when needed). I don’t think the work itself has fundamentally changed me, but it has become a vital part of who I am. I wouldn’t be whole without it.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
With The Tyanna Foundation, I get a lot of credit that I only partially deserve. We have hundreds of amazing volunteers and I get to claim all of their good works in the name of our Foundation. It’s a little humbling to be honest. But it’s more than that – I love the feeling of helping people and being able to share that feeling with all the other volunteers. Volunteering for Tyanna is often the first time a lot of our volunteers have ever given back to anything and it’s so great to hear how fulfilled it makes them too!
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
A living hero – that’s tough for me. The first one that comes to mind is a friend and fellow volunteer named Jill Mull. She is a breast cancer survivor and now raises money for breast cancer. She’s worked with a few organizations but now works with The Tyanna Foundation –which is how I got to know her. She exudes so much strength and compassion and she makes you happy to have her in your world. What would I ask her – how do you do it? Breast Cancer changes you and Jill has chosen to focus her energy toward making a difference, not feeling sorry for herself and it really is an inspiration to me.
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
A part-time (8-10 hrs/week), volunteer, administrative assistant. I work best when I have a person who I can funnel things to because I’m a little all over the place. My mind goes in a million directions and my best years with Tyanna were when I had a really strong administrative person by my side who was extremely organized and kept me on target. Right now I don’t have that and I REALLY miss it.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
Has your life been affected by breast cancer and if so, what have you done about it? There are so many ways to give back and if breast cancer is a cause that means something to you – make the time to make a difference.
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
“I’m the Chubby One.” I feel like I say that all the time because me and my 4 sisters run the Foundation together, and every time I show someone a photo I always say “I’m the chubby one”. The Tyanna Foundation is really a calling for all of us in all of the cities where we live, so if I wrote a book about Tyanna or giving, it would have a photo of me and my sisters on it and I’d have to say… “I’m the chubby one.”
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC?
People think I am really confident, strong and laid back but I actually cry at commercials and have to workout to combat stress. I can suck it up when I need to but I love to be in places that I’m comfortable in and love Baltimore because it’s a small town that pretends it’s a city – just my speed.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS?
Jump right in. Pick your passion and go for it. Whether it’s animals or kids or clean air – go for it. I don’t know a nonprofit that doesn’t want help so don’t waste another day. Make a phone call, meet some new people who will soon be your new best friends, share your talents and you will be surprised at how much more you receive in return.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
What is the inspiration for what you do? And the answer is – my mom – Tyanna O’Brien. I am the oldest of 5 girls and when my mom died of breast cancer (I was 25 at the time), we all knew we had to do something to honor her because she made a difference in the lives of so many people. We grew up volunteering ALL THE TIME, so starting an all-volunteer organization made sense. I feel very lucky that I grew up that way because giving feels really stinking good and if everyone did it a lot of problems would be solved. She is our inspiration.