The decorations and flowers from last week’s 131st Rose Parade had disappeared, but Stacy Kimmel could still feel the bands’ echoing drums and cheers from thousands accompanying her as she was led down Colorado Boulevard in her own procession on Monday, perched atop a shiny blue convertible and sporting a sash and crown fit for the Rose Queen.
Gracefully cradling her fragrant bouquet, Kimmel expertly cupped her hand to wave, timid at first, to the passersby outside the Tournament of Roses house, but finally offered a broad wave and unabashed smile as the procession continued. The response — people stopping in their tracks to wave, smile and yell “Happy New Year,” others rolling down their car windows to take pictures or rushing out of storefronts to wave in return — was a little overwhelming.
“I’m shocked by this outpouring of attention — I wasn’t anticipating it in the least,” said Kimmel, wiping away tears as she embarked on the procession, led by Pasadena Police Department vehicles, lights ablaze.
“The fact that the Police Department came out, with all these female officers here, and all of the women who have shown up here to support me and cheer me on, it’s incredibly humbling and such an honor,” she added.
One might call Kimmel’s procession the last float of 2020, one that perhaps best personifies the Rose Parade theme “The Power of Hope,” which Kimmel exemplifies like no other. A six-time cancer survivor, Kimmel has fought the disease for the past 13 years, inspiring all those who cross her path, especially fellow members of the Foundation for Living Beauty, a nonprofit organization that offers wellness activities to uplift the lives of women living with cancer and of cancer survivors.
Kimmel had been slated to ride on the City of Hope float on New Year’s Day, a trip that she said was on her bucket list. But two days before the big event, she underwent her 55th round of chemotherapy after a recent operation, and started feeling ill.
“By Tuesday night, I really wasn’t feeling well at all. I just couldn’t do it,” Kimmel said, noting that an operation to remove a renal gland has left her feeling exhausted, sleeping for days at a time, never mind the waves of nausea and inflammation.
Meanwhile, fellow Foundation for Living Beauty members, or “sisters” or “beauties” as they are called, were watching for Kimmel on their televisions on Jan. 1, prepared to see their friend adorning City of Hope’s annual float. When they didn’t see her, the texts started to fly.
Where was Stacy? What had happened?
Two fellow “beauties,” Anita Mendez and Gayle Michel, put their heads together and emailed Pasadena police, inquiring whether it might be possible for officers to escort their friend and safely re-create the parade route. Mendez and Michel created the Smile Project at the foundation last year, and thought such an event fit the project perfectly. Michel and Mendez began the project as a way to “pay it forward,” they said.
“One of the things about having cancer, one of the many things, is that it’s really hard to make plans because we have appointments or treatments or you’re not feeling well. … I know I’ve missed my own 50th birthday party, or it could be New Year’s or Christmas,” Michel said. “But when I found out Stacy wasn’t able to be in the parade, I just knew the disappointment that she must be feeling. And we thought, ‘Oh no, we just can’t have this.’”
Police Lt. Carolyn Gordon was enjoying her day off when she saw Mendez’ email, but she responded promptly. A cancer survivor herself, Gordon immediately felt the importance of the idea and rallied fellow female officers to see if they could join the procession.
“It’s one of those requests that you want to do everything you can to fulfill it,” said Gordon, who brought her backup units to the Tournament of Roses house, sounding the sirens. “We wanted her to know that she may just be queen for a day, but in our eyes, she will be queen for us always. … I am a cancer survivor, and it really warms my heart to think that I can do something else for someone who has cancer. One way or another, everyone has been touched by this disease.”
Kimmel became involved at the Foundation for Living Beauty about two years ago after seeing a pamphlet for the nonprofit at City of Hope. The organization caught her attention because of its dedication to providing wellness activities to women facing any type of cancer.
Kimmel, who had already successfully battled the disease several times, felt she wanted to focus on the power of wellness and how to lead her best life for her family and (now) 16-year-old daughter.
“I had already been through the journey of grief. There’s lots of processing that goes on, but for me at that point, I was searching for ‘How do I live my best daily life?’” Kimmel said. “I wanted to find like-minded people in similar situations and just how to live life and enjoy things as they come. The foundation provides great retreats and wellness opportunities — when your mind is calm, your body can heal.”
Kimmel, former creative director at City of Hope, is by nature private and shy, so sharing her cancer story this past year has been a journey in itself, she noted.
“My hope is that if I can help just one person get the treatment or the support they need, if I can help them get to the right doctors at the right time, then I’ve done what I was supposed to do,” she said, adding that her own parade will forever be a wonderful memory. “I don’t like to be in the spotlight, really, but today will forever be ingrained. I will always have this incredible moment, no matter what happens.”
The foundation, now celebrating its 15th year, annually serves about 900 women with cancer across Southern California. The nonprofit provides day and overnight wellness retreats that specialize in yoga for cancer and guided meditation and sisterhood events, as well as events at its headquarters in Pasadena. With an annual budget of about $500,000, everything the organization does is free of charge to its members, said Executive Director Nancy Davidson.
“We are a mind-body-spirit organization that offers wellness models that can help women in their cancer journey,” said Davidson, who’s been at the helm for four years. “I just love what we do and feel so grateful to be surrounded continuously by such strong women. It’s such an empowering organization and the women we serve are so joyful and hopeful that we can’t help but be happy.”
Davidson noted that the outpouring of support for Kimmel goes to show how many people are affected by cancer throughout their lives. Davidson’s mother is a cancer survivor and her sister has received a breast cancer diagnosis.
“I do a lot of public speaking, and when I ask, ‘How many of you in this room know someone with cancer?’ there will only be two or three people who don’t raise their hands.”
As Kimmel’s parade came to an end, she and the women who made up her entourage settled down for lunch at the Urth Caffé, sharing heartfelt hugs and studiously perusing the menu, and discussing different dietary tactics to fend off nausea, inflammation or vitamin deficiencies while battling cancer.
Mendez, who secured the blue convertible for Kimmel to ride in and bouquets donated by Duran Flowers, noted how important the Foundation for Living Beauty has been to her as she fought cancer.
“One of the unique things about the foundation is that if you haven’t ever had cancer, you really don’t understand what the women face. … It’s not just the radiation or being sick or not being able to eat … it’s the ups and downs of depression, it’s a lot,” Mendez said. “As much as you might like to share those things with your girlfriends, they don’t quite get it. So the sisterhood here really understands what you’re going through.”
Davidson, meanwhile, looked upon the “sisters” with admiration, noting how appropriate the theme “The Power of Hope” is for the group: “That’s what we are about — giving these women hope, helping them to find joy and sisterhood and the tools they need to heal.
“These women are so strong and can deal with anything. They deal with some of life’s worst circumstances in a way that is joyful, living each day at a time to its fullest. It’s been a real lesson for me,” she said, adding that helping Kimmel fulfill a bucket-list wish has been special for the nonprofit.
“Stacy is one of the strongest and most hopeful women that I know. She has always been empowering to other women, even when she’s been through her own journey, so it’s incredibly rewarding to give her this.”