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Walking for a cancer cure

TIAA participant Barbara Sirvis gets healthy while giving back

If you want to have a conversation with Barbara Sirvis, you better bring your walking shoes. She logs more than 1,200 miles a year—half of them between Memorial Day and September—preparing for the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, a 26.2-mile cancer research fundraiser benefitting the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. With eight walks behind her, she is now a 5-star fundraising pacesetter and has raised more than $66,000 with no plans to stop. But her story isn’t just about raising money or getting fit, it’s about giving back.
Barb retired in 2006 at the pinnacle of a career that took her from coast to coast as she rose from a special education teacher in California to president of Southern Vermont College, a “private college with a public mission.” That mission included giving opportunities to students who have “yet to fulfill their potential,” including those with extra financial and academic needs. Barb took great pride in making the college a welcoming place for all with a deep belief in the potential of every individual.
That belief started early. Growing up next door to a child with cerebral palsy led her to study special education in college and work at a camp for people with disabilities. When her mother took her to her first Brownie meeting as a child, she began her journey with the Girl Scouts, an organization dedicated to “building girls of courage, confidence and character,” and learned a lot about making the world a better place. Throughout her life she has carried with her a commitment to help people find their strengths and live life to the fullest.
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In Indio, California, where Barb lives during the winter months, she is known as “Scooter Barb” within the San Gorgonio Girl Scout Council. During cookie season she rides around on her Vespa in a “Proud to be a Girl Scout” shirt, looking for girls selling cookies. She asks them to recite the Girl Scout Promise, buys one box of cookies each time and gives them her own “Scooter Barb” patch to inspire them. Each box of cookies she buys is donated to the Council’s “I Care” cookie sharing program, which provides cookies to local charities, public safety organizations and deployed military troops with the message “You are our hero.”
Barb is also a National Volunteer Partner for the Girl Scouts and involved with the city of South Burlington, Vermont, where she lives most of the year. Beyond that she considers herself a “gig volunteer,” giving her time wherever she can—at a restaurant on Thanksgiving in Vermont, her local library, the Food Shelf, PGA and LPGA charity golf tournaments and more.
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When Barb first retired in 2006, she made a personal commitment to get healthy by walking. In 2011 a friend and parent of a former student, Betty, convinced her to take on the Jimmy Fund Walk with her. The challenge became personal when Barb learned that her former board chair at Southern Vermont College had begun cancer treatment at Dana-Farber. That first year, she began writing the names of people with cancer on her Jimmy Fund Walk T-shirt, knowing they “had her back” as she finished. She’s crossed the finish line every year since with more and more names—along with the inspirational words: “In honor, memory, hope and gratitude”—on her back. Today, she has more than 675 names on her shirt, given by friends, family and people she meets on her travels across the country.
When the weather is good, she prepares for the grueling nine-hour walk outside. Otherwise, you’ll find her walking at the mall, listening to books on tape on her iPod. Her three-mile walks per day in the off season are nonnegotiable, and she doesn’t let her busy schedule get in the way. She simply takes her calls—including the one for this interview—while she’s walking!
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Barb also does a lot of driving—in an RV with her dog, Chloe. Every December she sets out from Vermont for her winter home in California. On the return trip in the spring, she chooses a new route each time, visiting friends and staying in campgrounds along the way. She’s a member of “RVing Women,” a community of more than 2,000 women in the United States and Canada who travel independently and meet up at rallies to share experiences. She loves the sense of freedom, open space, natural beauty and serenity she experiences along the way, not to mention the chance to meet new people at every stop. Some of the names on her Jimmy Fund T-shirt have come from these encounters.
She says her spirit of adventure came from her mother, who gave her “roots and wings” and always wanted her to have the experiences she never had. Before her mother’s recent passing at the age of 93, they sometimes traveled together, and her mother always enjoyed the calls from Barb asking, “Want to know where I am today?”
No doubt she was proud of all of the good her daughter has done and of the many adventures she has undertaken. For her part, Barb plans to keep walking, driving and giving well into her 90s too. She doesn’t need much, just four or five pairs of walking shoes a year and an open road.
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