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September 14, 2021

Founders of Ann's Hope reflect on efforts to raise awareness about melanoma

After 16 years, nearly two million dollars raised, one Guinness World Record set, and countless lives impacted, Ann Harrington and Anne Frentzel have earned a well-deserved break.

At the end of 2021, they’ll officially be stepping aside from their foundation – Ann’s Hope – and passing the baton to another group who will continue their signature event, the annual Block Melanoma Run/Walk in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 2022 and beyond.

Through their efforts over the years, Harrington and Frentzel have been instrumental in raising awareness and educating about melanoma, as well as supporting groundbreaking research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and beyond.

But it’s the community they’ve created for individuals and families affected by melanoma – people just like themselves – that will be their lasting legacy. And it’s not something that’s going anywhere anytime soon.

“The name is Ann’s Hope Foundation but we are not the foundation, not even close,” Harrington said. “On the day of the run, we’d have 100 volunteers out there, from high school kids to grandparents. They are the foundation. So are the people who came to the events and fundraised for us. The foundation belongs to all of them.”

A shared love of running and a shared experience of loss

Friends now for over two decades, Frentzel and Harrington initially bonded over a shared love of running. But what cemented their future together was their individual experiences of losing a loved one to melanoma.

In 2002, Frentzel’s father passed away after a two-year fight with melanoma. Two years later, Harrington’s brother was diagnosed with advanced melanoma and passed away just six months later.

During each of their experiences, both women heard the same refrain over and over from friends and family: I didn’t know skin cancer could be deadly.

Throughout the course of many conversations together, the two friends realized: the word about melanoma needed to get out. And maybe they were just the people to do it.

So with a little help from some friends, Frentzel and Harrington launched the Ann’s Hope Foundation in 2005, with their first Block Melanoma Run/Walk taking place in May. Along with providing specialized long-sleeve race shirts with built-in SPF protection, event organizers placed banners along the race route with melanoma facts and information.

“Our hope to educate was just as important as our hope to raise money and help find a cure,” Frentzel said.

As with any new event, the organizers didn’t quite know what to expect. But when the day was done, the result couldn’t be argued with.

“800 people showed up to our little walk and we raised $35,000,” Harrington said. “We thought, maybe we’re onto something here.”

The power of community

Encouraged by the result of that first event, Ann’s Hope began to grow and expand. After just a few years, the Block Melanoma event outgrew its original venue and moved to the Milwaukee County Zoo. Other events, including galas and wine tastings, soon followed. Local business, dermatologists and even sports teams joined the cause.

They also began honoring both individuals who have lost their life to melanoma, as well as those who have survived it, at their events and on their webpage.

Then there’s the matter of that Guinness World Record. During the 2014 event, Ann’s Hope set the record for most people applying sunscreen at the same time, with 1,822 participants slathering up simultaneously.

Even as the events grew, Harrington and Frentzel noticed they were seeing many of the same faces at their events, year after year.

“We realized very quickly that there was no other outlet in the State of Wisconsin for people and families dealing with melanoma,” Frentzel said. “The run became a place for grieving melanoma families, as well as survivors, to come to and something for them to look forward to every year, and feel a comradery with other people that have walked in those same shoes.”

It’s a feeling that race participant Renee Zemke knows well. A melanoma survivor herself, Zemke says both she and her husband Aaron experienced a range of emotions leading up to their first Ann’s Hope event.

“It was mostly surrounding the fact that I would see I was not alone,” she said. “All of the folks there that day had been touched by melanoma. Everyone understood exactly how we felt. We were not alone. There is power in knowing that.”

Connecting with research

Another familiar face at Ann’s Hope events over the years was Mark Albertini, MD, a UW Carbone oncologist and researcher specializing in melanoma. Frentzel and Harrington remember him showing up to their very first event and introducing himself.

While Albertini had no connection to the event, both Frentzel and Harrington quickly realized he wasn’t there because he had to be, but because he wanted to be. And he kept coming back, year after year, frequently participating in the event with those whose lives he had touched in some way.

“He wanted to be amongst his patients and the families of people he had treated,” Harrington said. “He’d always be doing the walk with other people and talking and educating and answering questions. He is just such an incredible person and doctor.”

Both Frentzel and Harrington felt an immediate kinship with him during that first event. They also felt strongly about having the funds they raised stay in Wisconsin. So along with other melanoma initiatives across the state, they began supporting Albertini’s lab and research at UW Carbone – and never stopped.

Since 2007, Ann’s Hope has raised nearly $800,000 for Albertini’s research at UW Carbone. That’s allowed his lab, among other things, to pursue research aimed at identifying novel biomarkers, to help predict which advanced melanoma patients may have a better response to new immunotherapy treatments.

“I felt incredibly grateful to have been chosen and given the trust to make the best possible use of these very precious funds,” Albertini said. “I really do consider Ann and Anne as part of my team. Their sustained support really made possible some of these new tools that we’re now taking into the clinic.”

Looking to the future

Needless to say, a lot has happened since Ann’s Hope first got off the ground. In addition to the foundation, both Frentzel and Harrington have started their own businesses. Their children, who grew up taking part in the events, are now grown and off to college.

With so much achieved – and with COVID-19 making it difficult to plan for the futures – it felt in many ways like a natural time to move on. But Albertini says the impact of what Frentzel and Harrington have been able to achieve will be felt for years to come.

“Ann and Anne have really been outstanding advocates both for melanoma awareness and research,” he said. “I cannot say thank you enough for all they have done.”

That feeling of thankfulness, however, is mutual. Before stepping aside, both Harrington and Frentzel wanted to officially thank Albertini for all he’s done over the years, so they have one last surprise planned: a final $50,000 donation to his lab before the end of the year.

With so much achieved over the past 16 years, it’s hard to imagine what else both Harrington and Frentzel could add to their long list of accomplishments. But there’s one thing that has officially eluded them: actually being able to participate in their own event.

“People would always ask us if we did the walk or run at the event, and we would both laugh,” Harrington said. “We were just running around like crazy trying to keep the thing organized!”
One thing, however, is clear: whenever they’re ready to join their fellow runners and walkers out on the course, the community they built will be ready to welcome them with open arms.