Touched by the loss of loved ones to a disease that strikes nearly 1.4 million people nationwide each year, Roberta Pawlak decided 29 years ago to thrust herself into the search for a cure for cancer.
Through her volunteer work at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA, for which she has helped raised millions of dollars, she has done just that.
"Roberta is a role model in philanthropy," said Helene Brown, a board member of the Jonsson Cancer Center Foundation, the organization's nonprofit fund-raising arm. "We'd be nowhere without her pioneering efforts. It's people like her, with her ideas, that make a difference. No one else does what she does."
And Pawlak, despite her habit of shunning the limelight, does plenty. From interviewing young scientists to helping choose research projects to buying the flowers for fund-raising events, her efforts have touched many lives.
"What keeps me involved is how much I believe in the incredible work of the center," said Pawlak, 62. "I like that I can feel so close to the work they're doing."
Pawlak became involved in cancer research when she and her mother, Nancy Jones, joined the center's San Fernando Valley chapter in 1968 and were instrumental in raising money for what was to become the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Her own substantial financial contributions helped build the Westwood center.
The longtime Calabasas resident, a homemaker who came from a wealthy family, said she chose the Jonsson Center for her efforts because "I actually have an input into what cancer research projects will be funded with the money we raise."
Last year about $4 million was raised for the center, said Bill Flumenbaum, the foundation's executive director.
A portion of the funds are earmarked for "seed grants," which attract bright researchers to the center. Their innovative ideas often generate larger government grants, which have led to significant medical discoveries. According to Flumenbaum, top cancer researchers at UCLA started with seed grants from the foundation.
The center's doctors and scientists have contributed to such discoveries as gene therapy, in which the patient's own genes are used to alter or repair faulty ones, and the development of antigens, which heighten the immune system's ability to counteract cancer cells.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3,000 cases of cancer are diagnosed every day in the United States. With only half of those patients surviving, the need for research into battling the disease is great, authorities say.
As a member of the foundation's board of directors, Pawlak is known for asking penetrating questions about funding and for helping select prospective grant recipients.
"[Pawlak] is one of our most generous supporters. . . . She is a voice of reason on the board; she's very focused," Flumenbaum said. "Combining grace, charm and modesty, she epitomizes the volunteer for an organization like [ours]."
Pawlak sees no end to her volunteerism. "I'll always be supportive," she said. "Enthusiasm and involvement are contagious. I'll stay as long as I'm able."
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