The Here for the Girls annual calendar serves not only as an educational tool and fundraiser, but it also gives breast cancer survivors a voice.
A few years ago, Vanessa Larkin would never — not in a million years — have considered shaving her head, let alone be comfortable enough to model bald and brazen in front of a photographer and dozens of others.
But being diagnosed with breast cancer a little more than a year ago changed her outlook on a lot of things — not just her hair.
Larkin is one of 12 courageous women featured in Here for the Girls’ 2019 A Calendar to Live By.
The calendar is an informative breast-health guide and a major fundraiser for Here for the Girls, a local non-profit that got its start in 2007 by cancer survivors Renee Bowditch and Mary Beth Gibson. Initially named Beyond Boobs, the organization offers a unique resource and support mechanism for women affected by the disease. Here for the Girls is now the umbrella organization for Beyond Boobs, an in-person, community based support system, and Pink Link, a private, online community for survivors.
Bowditch and Gibson created the calendar as a tool to educate people.
“We wanted to publish a calendar and show that breast cancer can happen to anyone at any age — not just older women — and we wanted it to combat the myths and fill it with information that people would find helpful,” says Gibson.
For Larkin, it did just that. She remembers receiving a calendar in 2017, not long after she was diagnosed.
When she looked through it, she said it was the first time she felt like she was going to be okay.
“I thought, ‘I can do it — I can fight this,’” she recalls.
In addition to being an informative outreach product for the organization, the calendar is also a chance for breast cancer survivors to tell their stories in hopes of lifting up others. Each year a creative team offers a different way for them to do just that.
At the helm of this year’s publication was Brian Freer, publisher of the Health Journal and creative director for Tusk Creative. Freer worked closely with Gibson and Bowditch to come up with a theme for the 2019 calendar. Inspiration struck when Freer’s 9-year-old daughter Cami began reading a book of Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
“We were reading the stories together, and I just thought, ‘What a great way to reach young women — what a better device than fairy tales?’” Freer says. “I began to realize how they could be used as a metaphor for almost anything going on in your life that’s a challenge.”
Gibson agreed and was very happy with how the vision was pulled together.
“We achieved a really good balance in showing that yes, cancer has a dark side, but these women are strong,”
Gibson says. “It was very healing for the women to identify with a character and wonder what their strengths are and how they could relate to it. It is also really relevant because life will throw anything your way, and you have to be prepared to open a new chapter or to imagine a new future for yourself even if it’s one you didn’t necessarily expect.”
Freer and designers Kristen Bryant and Lisa Williams, also of Tusk Creative, worked tirelessly to create a cohesive calendar. To capture the rawness and fierceness of the women portraying characters such as Maleficent, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, the team spent several days with them during a weekend retreat and photo shoot — getting to know them and listening to their stories.
“We hung out with them, went to the beach with them and we’re all still friends with them — we developed relationships,” says Bryant, who also took behind-the-scenes photos. “It’s almost hard to explain. It was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad to have been a part of it.”
Adds Freer: “We had a short amount of time to do something so big. Every one of those women was so sincere in wanting to share their experiences so that others will have a better experience. They were so brave putting themselves out there.”
Being on the front cover of a calendar is another thing Larkin never thought she’d do.
“I’m so not a calendar girl,” she says with a laugh.
But when the calendar was revealed at Here for the Girls’ annual Pink Carpet Gala in Williamsburg, Va., on Sept. 29th, there she was, looking straight into the camera, eyes piercing and looking lovely as the character Rapunzel. She chose the character because of how important Rapunzel’s hair is to her before she has to cut it — similar to what Larkin went through.
Both have a happy ending.
“Once I cut it,” Larkin says, “I loved it and embraced it and have loved it ever since.”
Or, you might say — ever after.