Volunteering is a full-time job for local retiree

Although Madelyn Zelman has been retired for a decade, her schedule resembles that of someone with a full-time job. The Plantation resident devotes her days, often including weekends and nights, to volunteer work for several causes. 

Her main devotion is volunteering as the Board of Directors’ secretary, the communications editor and member of several committees with Debbie's Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer (DDF), a Davie-based nonprofit that one of her three daughters started to raise awareness about and advance funding for stomach cancer, as well as to provide education and support to patients, families and caregivers around the world.

Zelman, who has a granddaughter with Crohn's disease, also serves on the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) Book of Hope Luncheon Committee. Last year, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Broward honored Zelman with its Grandmother of the Year award, noting her work with DDF and CCFA.

She has since joined Nova Southeastern University’s Ambassadors Board and recently got involved in the Broward Chamber Of Non-Profit Organizations.

Zelman spent the first 26 years of her life in Brooklyn, and then lived in Virginia for two years before moving to Plantation in 1971. During her career, she taught English, speech communication and accent reduction as an adjunct professor at Broward College for 15 years and also ran a tutoring business.

You helped your daughter found DDF, which now has 19 chapters. How did it get started?

When my daughter Debbie was 40 years old and the mother of 10-year-old twins and a baby who had just turned 3 the previous month, she was a practicing attorney at her own law practice she had worked so hard to develop and was given the dire diagnosis of stage 4 incurable cancer. That was April 2008. She was very sick. She had to close the law practice totally, and we didn't know if she was going to make it to her birthday in September of 2008. But she did, and she responded to the chemo she was getting. Her odds of surviving one year were, we were told, 50/50, and the odds for her to survive five years were four percent. One year after her diagnosis, when she was still surviving, she decided that she was going to start an organization. ... We felt to an extent we were lucky because her husband is a physician, [and] her father — my husband — is a physician, and it was very helpful to us to have two men who could understand what was going on and who had influence and contacts in the medical community, and we thought, “What do people do who don't have those advantages?”

DDF's fourth annual Stomach Cancer Education Symposium, coupled with the fifth anniversary Dream Makers Gala, is next month, marking six years since Debbie's diagnosis. Describe the symposium. 

We fly in doctors from the leading cancer centers in the nation. ... Not only do we have attendees in person, but we have attendees who attend on our webinar, so we get questions submitted from all over the United States and out of the United States, and it's really amazing to hear these questions asked and answered by these doctors who are all in one room. 

What is your role?

I proofread all the materials. My husband is on the symposium committee. I do a lot to help plan the gala. I obtain probably about 90 percent of the auction items. 

A member of DDF's advocacy committee, you traveled to Washington D.C. for Stomach Cancer Advocacy Day last year and again this year. Why?

Although there are about 22,000 cases of stomach cancer diagnosed and about 11,000 deaths each year and although this is a very deadly cancer, it surprisingly, ironically, gets the least federal funding per cancer deaths of any cancer.

Describe this year’s trip.

We had 57 advocates who flew to D.C., and on Feb. 27, 2014, we met in the offices of 70 legislators to get research funding through the Department of Defense because the Department of Defense gives research dollars to diseases that are service-related, and there are a couple of reasons why stomach cancer can be service-related. ... We are getting a letter sent regarding this funding through Department of Defense, and the letter is cosigned by Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, of Miami, and Representative Lois Frankel, of Broward County.

What have your involvements taught you?

Dream big, because we just kept going and pursuing our dreams and never could have imagined we would be where we are, and we're not done. We've got a lot more to do. We'd like to have chapters in every state.

The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will be April 26 in Fort Lauderdale. Visit DebbiesDream.org, or call 954-475-1200.