They say you can always go home. And so it was the case for me, as I excitedly packed my bags right before Thanksgiving, to join several AOII leaders in New Orleans for the Arthritis Foundation’s annual meeting! I called New Orleans my home for many years, and this was a wonderful chance to return to my hometown, to represent my favorite organization in supporting a very dear cause, arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis came into my life in 2002, and while any chronic disease comes with unique challenges, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have amazing doctors, effective treatments, and of course, an army of thousands of AOIIs supporting me along every step of this journey. So, it is indeed my privilege to pay it forward and do everything I can to keep working for the betterment of other arthritis patients’ lives.
Soon after landing in New Orleans, I joined International President Gayle Fitzpatrick, and AOII Foundation Director Andrea Dill, for a late dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel. Dining is always a pleasure in the great city of New Orleans, and the highlight was a delicious bread pudding for dessert!
The next morning we arose bright and early to hit Café Dumond in the French Quarter on a gorgeous, sunny day. Gayle, Andrea, PIP Allison Allgier, and I met AOII Foundation Secretary Linda Grandolfo, and Schuyler Ruhlman, a New Orleans native, and recent winner of the Adele Hinton award. One thing about those Café Dumond beignets—they are decadent and delicious, but you have to watch that powdered sugar!
With our tummies content, it was time to get down to business at the conference, and first stop was the wonderful AOII table, manned by our new Director of Communications, Mariellen Sasseen! She had brought some lovely photos featuring Strike Out events and the many Walks and Jingle Bell Runs supported by our collegiate and alumnae sisters! We got a lot of attendee traffic, with many thanking us for all we do for the Arthritis Foundation, including former AOII HQ staffer and arthritis volunteer Rachel Boison. Directly across from our table was a fantastic showcase of the child’s and teen “power packs” that are sponsored by a generous grant from the AOII Foundation. These fabulous backpacks provide newly diagnosed kids with some important resources and tools for comfort, including a teddy bear cool/hot pack, as they begin the treatment journey.
A group photo of all of the AOII's in attendance at the Arthritis Foundation Annual Meeting,
plus a look at the Power Packs brought to patients by AOII!
Our conference opened with some very inspiring and riveting presentations from Arthritis Foundation leaders, challenging each of us to be a Champion of Yes! AF President and CEO Ann Palmer shared the 2016 annual plan, the main goal of which is to “create a reputation as the cause leader audaciously attacking arthritis and its effects.” Powerful words, and a daunting challenge! Keynote speaker Jason Saul took the room by storm with a presentation on measuring, marketing, and selling impact. Each of us learned so much about how to change the conversation, make a stronger case for support, and sell tangible outcomes that move the needle.
Next came breakout sessions, the first of which was Telling Your Story. Wow, get out that Kleenex-I was so inspired! This session, facilitated by my good friend Julie Butscher, with whom I volunteered on a National Walk Committee years ago, drove home the need to tell your arthritis story in a few words and impactfully. From there, we went to What Makes Great Events Great? This session told us success stories about Walk teams that have effectively brought their communities together!
Recharged from these learning opportunities, it was time to get fancy for the Evening of Honors! Emcee Matt Isemann, a television star and comedian, had us in stitches as he rolled off the jokes, but he also shared his poignant story of being diagnosed with RA and living with it while navigating a career in Hollywood. We also heard the heartwrenching stories of two young arthritis patients who are bedridden and face life-threatening obstacle upon obstacle as they come in and out of hospitals and surgeries. Matt may have had us rolling, but in reality, arthritis is no laughing matter. It’s not just a disease of joints—inflammatory arthritis attacks organs and disables people from living their lives vibrantly and meaningfully. These young patients want their stories shared with the world so we can stand up and continue to walk with them, jingle for them, and make that crucial difference in finding a cure.
With the evening over, Gayle and I agreed that it was very exciting and motivating to be part of this special conference. We were so proud when they announced AOII has given $566,000 in support! Talk about exceeding that expectation! I felt truly blessed to share this weekend with such dear sisters, and to learn how to be a stronger leader in supporting the many initiatives of the Arthritis Foundation. Content, I boarded my plane and said goodbye to this great hometown. Till next time, New Orleans, and laissez les bon temps rouler!