August 5, 2011
An Encounter with a Homeless Woman Changed My Life

A year ago, I volunteered to help with a project for women cancer survivors.  I have participated in several events over the years that were geared to help restore or uplift the spirits of cancer survivors through pampering, empowerment or patient advocacy. Diving in heart first, I was excited to volunteer to help stamp out the stigma of cancer. At this event, I met women from diverse backgrounds on various stages of their journey  with their cancer diagnosis. Some of the women had recently completed their treatments and some of them were a few years down the road. Some were well known in the community and supported by family and friends. A few were still in treatment but only one was homeless.

Enter Wanda.

Wanda was in a battle for life with no place to call her own. She was referred by her oncologists who knew about the special event. When Wanda entered my makeshift dressing room, she was a bit nervous as she gave me a once over and checked out the surroundings packed with designer clothes and jewelry on loan to me from personal friends from around the country. As I introduced myself, I promised her we were going to have a fantastic time as I pulled my “stylist” title out of the box for her makeover and photo session. I shared with her about my grandfather who was the motivation for me volunteering that day. Wanda countered my icebreaker conversation with words of her own as she told me how she wanted to look. “Not shy, this one”, I thought to myself with a smile. After our intro, Wanda tried on clothes while preparing for her photo shoot. During that time together, we shared about each other lives. Wanda did not hold back her thoughts and gave me quite a few old school zingers about her observations about life from a street perspective. Her words were honesty on steroids. She shared her thoughts about “people wanting to help others  when their own lives are messed up.” Hearing her priceless commentary had me roaring with laughter and deep in thought. Wanda talked about her cancer diagnosis and her chemo treatments that seemed endless. She did not hold back about the physical and mental pain. She expressed her gratefulness for the Madison Church of Christ congregation that befriended her and took her under their wings. The more I inquired about how she was taking care of herself, the more she shared about her life and background. “Cancer was the last thing on my mind,” she said softly at one point. She had seen many trials before cancer, I was told. But those trials produced one of the most courageous women I have ever met.
When she was photographed, her inner strength and beauty, that I saw firsthand, filled the camera lens. Wanda was radiant and proud. My tears flowed uncontrollably as the photographer kept telling her how stunning she was as he was encouraging her to give him her best smile for the camera. By the end of the shoot, Wanda was ready to sign with the Ford Modeling agency!

As we were calling the day a wrap, I introduced Wanda to my friend, Daphne, who was volunteering also. I told Wanda that Daphne was a dentist. With all the frankness that only Wanda can deliver, she pulled off her well-coiffed wig that was used in her beauty transformation and said, “A dentist! How come you did not introduce her to me first? I really need to visit her!”  With a jerk of a wig, Wanda gave me a dose of reality. Just like that, Wanda told us in her own way, what  her real needs were!A homeless woman taught me to make sure “my good works” met the needs of those I am trying to serve. Giving a winter coat to a man who lives in the desert is an exercise in futility. A homeless woman showed me that true compassion and a willingness to listen to those who need to be heard should be at the heart of volunteering.  A homeless woman had me reevaluating if my volunteer hours were making any difference. A homeless woman had me  questioning if my “good deeds” were actually meeting real needs. It might be a city flooded or hit by a tornado or a cancer patient who has no place to lay their head: in the end, we all need each other. Listening to Wanda, I learned the importance of knowing the true need of those who I am trying to serve. Wanda taught me to listen for the real answer when I ask, “How can I help?”

I stayed in touch with Wanda and her church members. They became her adopted family and friends. They all have endless stories about the goodness of Wanda. She is well. They say she has an apartment of her own and is finishing school. Everyone that knows her tell me exactly the same thing, “Wanda changed my life!”  Wanda changed my life too. Because of Wanda, I have learned nothing in life is without purpose or meaning, even an encounter with a homeless person.

January 9, 2011
Mattie Bates: A Cancer Survivor and Community Role Model

Nashville is a city of community leaders in action. Most of those leaders are women on divinely inspired missions. They are determined to fight for causes that impact not only our city and region but our country. One of those leaders is Mattie Bates. Mrs. Bates has been a warrior on the battle field in the fight against cancer. In the Nashville community, she teaches women to take charge of their health and to be strong advocates for cancer awareness. Ms. Bates uses her personal battle with cancer as a catalyst for her mission to educate women to be survivors by early detection.

Mattie is a ten year breast cancer survivor. She retired from BellSouth after 34 years of service and now describes herself as “semi-retired.” She is the coordinator of Davidson County’s Witness Project, the first in Tennessee. The Witness Project® is a culturally sensitive breast and cervical cancer outreach effort presented by cancer survivors and lay health advisors to increase awareness, knowledge, and access to screening and early detection among the African American population in an effort to reduce cancer incidence and mortality.

Mrs. Bates work with the Witness Project® programs are presented in churches and community organizations by Witness Role Models (WRMs) and Lay Health Advisors (LHAs). Witness Role Models are African American women who are breast or cervical cancer survivors. Their presence as survivors is seen as a blessing and proof that cancer is not a death sentence. Lay Health Advisors are not cancer survivors themselves, but are women who want to work with the project to organize and publish programs, network with community people, give facts about breast and cervical cancer and available resources, teach breast self-examinations (BSEs) and encourage preventive services (mammograms, clinical breast exams (CBEs), pelvic exams, Pap tests and breast self-exams (BSE).
During a program session, the WRMs witness by talking about their experience with cancer, stressing the importance of early detection and answering questions about their personal experiences, fears and concerns. The educational session addresses the fears and beliefs many women hold about cancer, demonstrates that the diagnosis of cancer is neither a death sentence nor a punishment. Following a session, LHAs teach BSE using breast models.Mrs. Bates work does not stop with advocacy in churches and the faith base community. She is seen often at major cancer walks and events, health initiatives, cancer awareness seminars, and survivor celebrations promoting women health. The cancer community is a very close nit community in Nashville and Mrs. Bates’ work, heart and determination are known throughout every corner of Davidson County.

In addition to her work with the Witness Project, Mrs. Bates is also a member of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center’s Cancer Queens. The Cancer Queens are a group professional educators and cancer survivors who perform A Cancer Prevention Musical Revue. The shows are 45 minutes of skits and song and dance routines set to popular music with new educational lyrics that are consistent with the educational messages of the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institute.The performances inspire women to treat themselves like queens and take care of their health. Audience members laugh and tap their toes while they learn about the importance of breast and cervical cancer screenings and the healthy lifestyle habits that can help reduce the risk of developing certain cancers as well as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Since October 2008 debut, the Cancer Queens have entertained and educated more than 3000 women of all ages in Tennessee and delivered 15,000 individual cancer prevention and risk reduction messages. Often attendees leave asking about upcoming dates to bring back family and friends. The impactful performances have sold out quickly. Many come to see Mrs. Bates become her stage persona ‘Miss Patty’! Mrs. Bates said, ”Since joining the Witness Project and the Cancer Queens, it has been an interesting journey and I feel that I have embarked on another career—sharing my story to let others know you can be a survivor if cancer is detected early. Being part of the Cancer Queens allows me to share that message.” Mrs. Bates aka “Miss Patty” biggest fans are her husband and her son and daughter. They are usually on the front row cheering her on!

Mrs. Bates work through The Witness Project® is made available through a grant from the Greater Nashville Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to promote breast cancer screening. The Witness Project® in collaboration with the Bridges to Care program provides mammograms to clients who do not meet the criteria of the Tennessee Breast and Cervical Screening Program through the Tennessee Department of Health, who are uninsured. Specifically, the program will target 150 Davidson County women age forty to sixty-four that are asymptomatic. The Cancer Queens! A Cancer Musical Revue is funded by Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center. For more information about volunteering as team member or to schedule a program with the Witness Project, Mrs. Mattie Bates can be reached at (615) 340-5680. To schedule a performance with Vanderbilt’s Cancer Queens you can contact Jennifer Murray at or visit or

Photo Credits: Vanderbilt Ingram Cancer Center and Mrs. Mattie Bates.
Cancer Queens
Mattie Bates in the community
Genma Holmes, Mattie Bates, and Navinta Gunter

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