The Gold Ribbon Project

Gigi and Kelsey

Gigi Thorsen lived quietly in Salt Lake City, Utah with her daughters, seven-year-old Kelsey and four-year-old Kiersten. On July 2, 1996, all that ended when she was thrown into the heartbreaking world of pediatric cancer. Kelsey had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Gigi, a self-described computer junky, quickly found an online support group sponsored by the Association of Online Cancer Resources (ACOR). However, Gigi did not have much time to network with other parents on ways to cope. Kelsey acquired an infection and died 26 days after diagnosis.

During those last 26 days with Kelsey, Gigi met Lisa White, the mother of two-year-old Gabriel, just given the same diagnosis as Kelsey. Lisa lived in Park City, Utah with her three sons: Gabe and his older brothers, Nicholas and Graham. The family had just returned from the beaches of North Carolina when Gabriel was diagnosed on July 6. Lisa remembers leaving Gabe in the arms of a trusted friend while she and her husband attended Kelsey’s funeral services.

During the same time, Gigi and Lisa met Erin Jordan through the online ACOR support groups. Erin’s six-year-old son Zack was battling neuroblastoma. After a long and valiant fight, Zack died in November 1998. Like Lisa and Gigi, Erin too felt a need to help families dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and she was especially drawn to other bereaved families.

After Kelsey’s passing, Gigi began revamping the Rocky Mountain chapter of Candlelighters, an organization founded to support families and kids in treatment. After just one year at the helm, Gigi received ‘The Most Improved Chapter’ award in 1997. Not long after, Lisa and Erin joined her to help improve patient support services and build a thriving Candlelighters chapter. They raised money for family parties, started a patient support coordinator program, organized an Angel Tribute at the Utah State Capitol, hosted benefit galas in Park City and began to promote the gold ribbon as the symbol of childhood cancer awareness.

Envisioned by Gigi, a childhood cancer awareness campaign was planned to help explain pediatric cancer to the world. Gigi realized that AIDS and breast cancer were household terms in part because those communities were excellent at raising awareness and publicizing the needs of their cause. "We needed a symbol to stand behind, to show our unity against childhood cancer," she said. A ribbon could serve as a constant reminder that thousands of children get cancer and many still die from it.

When she asked other parents and friends about her idea, she found overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement. A friend suggested gold, and it seemed like a natural fit. The original card designed to accompany the first pins explained the choice like this:

This gold ribbon pin is the symbol of Childhood Cancer awareness, representing our children in these and other ways:
It is a precious metal, as our children are precious.
It is the flame of hope.
It is the purity of our children's hearts.

With support from Lisa, Erin, Rocky Mountain Candlelighters and her online support groups, Gigi took the idea national. With a vote of confidence from the board of directors of the national Candlelighters organization, the ‘Gold Ribbons for Childhood Cancer Awareness’ campaign was born.

In the years that followed, Gigi continued to successfully run Gold Ribbons, distributing more than 50,000 ribbons worldwide. In 2007, Erin took over the business, working hard to keep the gold ribbon in the public consciousness and to raise awareness of the disease. Now Erin Scott and mother to three daughters, Elizabeth, Emmilee and Elaina, she networked tirelessly, supporting newly bereaved families and carrying on the Gold Ribbon campaign.

Another changing of the guard brought The Gold Ribbon Project to Lisa in 2013. She continues letting the world know the gold ribbon is the official awareness symbol of all childhood cancers.

In 1999 Lisa, founded Rock Against Cancer, a nonprofit that funds music therapy in children’s hospitals. As the organizations combine forces, the ‘Gold Ribbons for Childhood Cancer Awareness’ campaign has been reborn as The Gold Ribbon Project. This change marks an important shift: as the symbol has garnered much better awareness throughout the years, the project can focus more on advocating for children than simply reminding people which color to help spread. Almost every childhood cancer nonprofit has adopted the gold ribbon as a universally recognized symbol of hope for families whose kids are still fighting and as a sign of remembrance for the kids who did not make it.

We work to ‘Light Up September Gold’ and to focus national attention on the infants, preschoolers, preteens, teens and young adults fighting cancer right now. There are more than 40,000 young people in treatment currently, and nearly 4,000 children will lose their lives to cancer this year.

Your charitable donation will help support families whose children have been diagnosed with cancer. Cure rates are steadily improving, but treatments are painfully long, sometimes more than three years. Families are thrown into chaos; children are challenged by long-term side effects; and, despite medical advances, 35% of kids diagnosed with cancer will die. Help us fight the battle that no parent wants to have to face with their child. We thank you for your support.

The gold ribbon campaign was inspired by the life of Kelsey Nicole Thorsen, 1989-1996.

(Thank you to Nancy Keene for excerpts from “Meet the Activist” in OncoNurse.)