Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
Welcome Heather Von St. James, creator of LungLeavin’ Day, to Dreams Coming True! Tell us a little about yourself, Heather:
My husband, Cameron and I had been married 7 years when we finally decided to start our family. Lily was born August 4, 2005, and just 3.5 short months later, I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. The cancer almost always caused by asbestos exposure. I was only 36 years old.
We sought out the best specialist we could find and our search led us to Dr. David Sugarbaker, who at the time was at Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston.
I was told my best chance for survival was to have a risky surgical procedure called an Extra Pleural Pneumonectomy. It consists of the removal of the entire lung, the lining of the lung, the lining of the heart, half of the diaphragm and the 6th rib. I had my surgery on February 2 2006, and the day called Lungleavin’ Day was born.
When did this creative dream begin?
My sister and my husband were passing the time in the hospital when I was having a surgical biopsy. She nicknamed the day I was to have my lung removed as Lungleavin’ Day and they dreamed up a whole celebration around the day. They decided that it was cause for celebration instead of mourning. It was the day my life was given back to me. The tradition consists of writing your fears on a plate with a sharpie, and smashing the plate in a bonfire. It’s a way to overcome fears and obstacles that hold you back.
The idea of sharing the celebration with others came to my husband and me as we were breaking our plates on the first anniversary of Lungleavin’ Day. It was just the two of us, and it felt so amazing to conquer our fears, we knew we had to share it with others. The next year we celebrated with about 40 people, and it has grown every year since.
What makes your project stand out from the crowd?
It’s the anniversary of the loss of my lung due to cancer. I don’t know many people that celebrate that! Also, the fact that we encourage the smashing of perfectly good stoneware in the name of overcoming fears! People, especially the kids, love it.
What are the goals and intentions of this project?
A few years ago, we decided we needed to give back to the mesothelioma community, and started using the event as a fundraiser for two non-profits that my husband and I support. The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, and The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. I want it to grow every year, and have more awareness for mesothelioma. It is such an underfunded and misunderstood cancer. The more awareness we create, the more people who are diagnosed will benefit.
How does your project create community?
I have a worldwide following of my blog, and I share the even all over the world. Mesothelioma is much wider known in countries like Australia, and England. Sharing our story, the event brings people from all over the world together for one night. I‘ve had videos shared with me from friends as far away as Plymouth, England breaking plates on Lungleavin’ Day. Friends all over the US get into it as well. My surgeon, Dr. Sugarbaker, told me that when he gets new patients, they ask him if THEY should celebrate Lungleavin’ Day as well. That makes me smile.
Many have creative ideas but trouble following through with them. What advice would you give to creative types who start projects eagerly…but then enthusiasm drizzles off?
When you are truly passionate about something, and see the impact it makes, it is easier to follow through. To keep focused, in the beginning, keep it small and simple. Don’t get in over your head. Getting overwhelmed will keep people from succeeding. I have added a little more year after year, and changed things each year to keep it fun. That helps keep me motivated. That and the fact that I have many, many, people who look forward to this event every year; I don’t want to let them down.
Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributor have a specific role?
The first few years it was just my husband and myself. As the event grew, I asked advice from friends who do fundraisers and events for their advice. Trial and error were great teachers. I have friends who have stepped in to help. I hire babysitters for the night so parents can enjoy it and not have to keep an eye on their kids, and also I have a hostess who keeps the food fresh and the beverages flowing, so I can concentrate on the people at the party, and not the “housekeeping” aspect of it. I never have a shortage of people wanting to lend a hand to help. My husband is in charge of the outside. He makes our backyard where the bonfire is, into a winter wonderland. Lights, ice lanterns, and tons of seating and standing area. It is really beautiful. It is all a team effort.
What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?
I can honestly say nothing has been hard about it. We have had such great interest since the beginning, that there hasn’t been anything that I would consider hard.
What have you learned?
To ask for help. It is so much easier to have people help you out.
Have there been any unexpected surprises?
YES! How much people LOVE this celebration and look forward to it every year.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about starting your project?
That it is a somber occasion. Quite the opposite.
What are some ways you promote your project?
Mostly social media and our Lungleavin Day web page at mesothelioma.com/heather/lungleavinday.
Oh my. I’m still so new to the marketing end of it. But I realized if I want it to grow, I can’t continue to depend on the same 70 -80 people that attend every year. I needed to reach out to other outlets to let them know about it. It takes up a ton of time, but I’m so passionate about it, that I don’t mind. It becomes a full time job for the month of January.
What social network has worked best for you?
Facebook and Twitter are wonderful.
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
I like what Nike says. “Just do it” Surround yourself with people who support you and just go for it. Ask for help, seek out people who have done similar things and ask their advice.
Where do you see this project in five years?
I would love to see it at a bigger venue! The trick is finding a place that will let us break plates in a bonfire! I would love to have news coverage and hopefully it is a consistent fundraiser for mesothelioma research.
How can we find your creative dream come true?
Learn more about LungLeavin’ Day here
My personal blog can be found at mesothelioma.com/heather
My fundraising page for The Mesothelioma Foundation is here: curemeso.org/fundraising/heathervsj
My facebook page: facebook.com/HeatherVonStJames
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