When Maria Gemma officially stepped from behind the desk as property manager of her family’s real estate business in 2009, she firmly planted her feet in front of an issue that had grown out of personal grief into a very public passion.
That’s when Gemma became a full-time employee and executive director of the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, a nearly eight-year effort that has thrust the issues associated with the third-leading cause of death from cancer in Rhode Island further into the national spotlight.
Growing slowly at first, but steadily, the Pawtucket-based foundation has generated millions of dollars in donations that all go back into local efforts. In 2010, for the first time, the foundation hit the million-dollar mark, generating $1.2 million in donations.
The foundation started in 2004 as a small, volunteer effort by her brother two years after the death of their mother, Gloria Gemma, who died of the disease at the age of 70. The late-stage cancer was diagnosed less than a year earlier.
It’s “not really something that should happen,’’ said Maria Gemma, 56, of the late detection of her mother’s cancer. “It’s difficult, it doesn’t matter what age you are.”
The foundation’s local effort has become a statewide resource and has drawn national and international attention for its annual Flames of Hope: A Celebration of Life. The event is the largest Breast Cancer Awareness event in the Northeast, Maria Gemma said.
Gloria Gemma was the mother of nine and wife of Larry Gemma, owner of the Rhode Island business Gem Plumbing & Heating Service Inc., as well as Gem Property Management.
“People are not cognizant of the magnitude of how cancer touches the community,” Maria Gemma said.