Samaria Hunter, EMBA ’18 and her non-profit WINKS from God! recently launched its first fundraising and awareness campaign to help support brain tumor patients and caregivers. The WINKS Challenge includes a 120-mile virtual run, walk, bike challenge; a 5K event; and an Intentional Kindness challenge. Along the way, participants will unlock facts about the brain tumor community and why this cause is so important.
WINKS, which stands for With Intentional Kindness and Support, was founded by Hunter as a way to pay-it-forward after surviving a brain tumor of her own. In late 2015, she was diagnosed with a plum-sized meningioma on her right frontal lobe and immediately underwent treatment.
“If you were to ask a person if they knew someone with breast cancer or prostate cancer, chances are they would. Brain tumors are such that you can go a lifetime without knowing someone who has one, and many people don’t understand what they are and the impact they have on patients and their caregivers,” she said. “As soon as the doctor told me I had a mass on my brain, my immediate thought was how much time do I have? My limited knowledge of brain tumors led me to believe that my life was going to be cut short and so my goal with this organization is to do the heavy lifting to educate others.”
As Hunter navigated her journey through treatment and recovery, the idea of WINKS began to form in her mind. In addition to providing educational materials about brain tumors, she wanted to create an organization where patients and caregivers could receive support and access to local resources.
“Our assumption starting out was that the financial aspect of having a brain tumor would be the most important thing because it has the highest first year cost of any cancer. But we did a survey and found out that patients cared more about the emotional support or lack of support and empathy they received from friends and family as they went through this journey,” said Hunter. “They wanted support from people who could relate to their experience and in Hampton Roads, there was no group or network at the time that provided those resources.”
The survey results aligned with what Hunter witnessed as a patient undergoing treatment. While she had received an outpouring of support, including spiritual, emotional, medical advice, and physical labor, she met many other brain tumor patients throughout the course of her treatment who did not have strong support networks.
“I had a phenomenal support system,” she said. “There was no area of my life that didn’t support me when I received my diagnosis, from my job to my church family to my run family to my Navy family. I didn’t see everyone else with that kind of support system so this was my way of paying it back and paying it forward.”
Willing Mind over Matter
Hunter, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, graduated from Old Dominion University under the Navy’s Enlisted Commissioning Program with her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering before commissioning as an officer in the United States Navy. She served for 25 years on active duty before retiring as a Lieutenant Commander and transitioned into a civilian career at Newport News Shipbuilding as a cybersecurity manager.
An avid runner, Hunter joined thousands of runners at the 39th Marine Corps Marathon in October 2014. But at mile nine, her knees buckled. She was encouraged by her husband and supporters to get off the course, but she was determined to complete the race. After run-walking the remaining miles, Hunter drove back to Hampton Roads and went to the emergency room.
Hunter had struggled with weakness and pain on the left side of her body for years and doctors attributed this most recent episode to a leg injury. A previous brain study had ruled out a neurological problem, but for the months following the Marine Corps Marathon, Hunter suffered from intensifying pain, leg spasms, and migraines. An MRI with contrast confirmed a benign, non-cancerous tumor on her brain which had likely been growing undiagnosed for up to 15 years. Unlike most tumors, a benign brain tumor can be life threatening.
Hunter underwent surgery at Duke University Medical Center’s Brain Tumor Center but experienced a setback when nine months later doctors informed her that the tumor had grown. She then went for radiation treatment and despite a challenging course of treatment, it proved to be successful.
“My neuropsychologist encouraged me to take a class or two in order to keep my brain active and rekindle the connections after surgery,” she explained. “I don’t think he thought I would take it as far as I did.”
Though she already had two master’s degrees – one in computer management and information assurance from the University of Maryland University College, and another in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College – Hunter knew if she wanted to continue her career as a cybersecurity manager, or forgo it completely to run a nonprofit full time, she would need an MBA to do so.
“I had a good friend who worked for William & Mary and she shared with me the different types of MBA programs available. I elected to do the Executive MBA and began classes three months after I completed radiation treatment,” she said.
Though the academics were challenging, Hunter received an overwhelming amount of support from the staff, faculty, and her Executive MBA classmates. She says the experience was invaluable because she still receives support from the Raymond A. Mason School of Business network even after earning her degree, and the connections she made were vital to successfully establishing WINKS from God!
“The strategic management class I took with Professor Brent Allred helped me to define the problem and what services we were going to provide brain tumor patients and caregivers. I went to the Entrepreneurship Center and worked with Graham Henshaw on a strategy to move forward. I took a design thinking class with James Olver which helped me learn a lot about empathy and how to identify people who could strategically support my efforts. And Professor William Stauffer was very helpful as we learned the key aspects involving intellectual property and contracts,” Hunter explained. “There was so much I gained from my experience at William & Mary.”
With Intentional Kindness and Support
Hunter paused her pursuit of establishing a nonprofit when she found out she needed radiation treatment. She then put the idea on the back-burner while she completed the Executive MBA program. But following graduation, she kicked into high gear to formally found WINKS from God!, an all-volunteer nonprofit working to enhance the quality of life for brain tumor patients and caregivers.
Hunter and her radiation oncologist, Dr. Allan Thornton from the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute, founded the organization, which was formally awarded 501(c)(3) status in 2019. Hunter serves as the President and Thornton as the Chairperson of the nonprofit’s first board of directors. They are joined by Dr. Odell McCants from Hampton University Health Center, and Jana Allen-Bishop, the Chief Recruiter of the Executive MBA program at the Mason School.
Currently, WINKS from God! hosts a bimonthly support group for brain tumor patients and their caregivers, and provides educational resources for those looking for more information about diagnoses and available treatments.
As a military retiree, Hunter had access to affordable medical care unlike some other brain tumor patients who are torn between paying the incidentals of care on top of existing household expenses. Hunter hopes that WINKS from God! will soon launch Empathy in Action, a financial assistance program to provide income-based grants that will help cover expenses like meals, lodging, and transportation for patients and caregivers as they travel for treatment.
Additionally, Hunter says she would like to see WINKS from God! assume the heavy lifting to support research that will improve patient outcomes and help find a cure for the many brain tumors afflicting patients across the United States.
“Ultimately, I would like to stand up this organization as a true nonprofit with an executive director and several employees to drive this mission forward,” she said.
The WINKS Challenge is the first fundraising event that Hunter and her team have hosted in the short time since it was founded.
The 120-miles of the challenge signifies the over 120 different types of brain tumors in existence. The impact of every tumor is different depending on the size and location within the patient’s body, and through the challenge, participants will have an opportunity to learn more.
According to Hunter, every patient’s and caregiver’s journey is unique and with that in mind, the WINKS Challenge was developed so that participants can create their own unique journey – whether it is to run, walk, or bike the 120 miles; complete the mileage challenges with a team or individually; and performing intentional acts of kindness unique to each participant’s interests and abilities.
“Our goal for this event is to raise funds for Empathy in Action and to educate the community on how difficult life becomes once you’re diagnosed with a brain tumor,” she explained.
Participants can register from now until November 1st and have until December 15th to conquer any stage of the challenge and submit their results online. All proceeds from the event will benefit WINKS from God! and the patients and caregivers it supports in Hampton Roads.
For more information on the WINKS Challenge, visit https://runsignup.com/Race/VA/Suffolk/WINKSChallenge and more information about brain tumor resources visit WINKS from God! at https://winksfromgod.org/.