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More than 42,000 Minnesotans donned pink T-shirts and joined the Race for the Cure last year, and organizers hoped to beat that number in 2012.
But with just a week to go before this year's race, registration is down by about 5,500 people -- the lowest in a decade -- as sponsor Susan G. Komen Foundation struggles to overcome a brief decision to quit funding breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood centers.
Komen affiliates across the nation are feeling the effects of that February public relations debacle, which is starting to change the balance of power at the nation's largest breast cancer charity.
"We're still fielding concerns from the community," said David Egan, co-executive director of Minnesota's Komen affiliate, which is marking its 20th anniversary this year.
That "community" includes Rosa Rubio, a Minneapolis mother who won't be among the sea of pink-clad runners and walkers at the Mall of America next Sunday. She and a dozen friends who typically join the race instead will be participating in their own fundraising walk around Lake Nokomis.
The proceeds will go to a friend battling breast cancer, said Rubio, who added she no longer wanted to give money to an organization that mixes politics with its mission.
Plus, she joked, "It will be a lot easier to find each other at the starting line."
Folks like Rubio have prompted Komen headquarters to rethink the way it sets policy. The national office recently decided to give a bigger voice to its local chapters, creating a new "Affiliate Leadership Council" and adding a second seat for a local leader on its nine-member board of directors.
"We think this will go a long way toward having a more cohesive government structure moving forward," said Andrea Rader, spokesman for the Dallas-based Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
The foundation has also been running public service announcements in key markets to clarify Komen's work, Rader said.
Nonetheless, registrations at Komen races have declined across the country, from affiliates in central Virginia to Indianapolis to Spokane, Wash., news reports show. Rader points out, however, that in cities such as Fort Worth, registration has kept pace with previous years. And in Ocean City, Fla., holding its first race, interest has been higher than anticipated.
Rader acknowledged that mistakes were made. But Komen's message is simple, she said. The need for breast cancer research and support is still there. And Komen is in a position to make a difference.
That rang true to Julie Gotham, a volunteer at the Komen kiosk at the Mall of America this week. Surrounded by displays of pink T-shirts, water bottles, jackets and more, Gotham said she was so worried about Komen's fundraising prospects that she volunteered for the group for the first time.
Gotham does have a vested interest. The small nonprofit that she runs, the Cambridge Medical Center Foundation, has received two grants from Minnesota's Komen chapter to provide financial aid to breast cancer patients.
"We've been able to pay for gas, food, car repairs, rent," Gotham said. "I worry that the work of Komen is getting lost in the controversy."
The Race for the Cure generates about 70 percent of the $3.3 million annual budget of the Minnesota Komen affiliate, Egan said. The Bloomington-based agency had hoped to capitalize on its 20th anniversary this year, registering 45,000 people.
Instead, 2012 could wind up seeing the lowest number of participants in more than a decade. More than 40,000 people a year have participated in the race since 1993, he said. About 37,000 people so far have signed on.
It's not just the registration fees that are important. It's the pledges from family and friends to support the runners and walkers in the event. Amy Hoover of Minneapolis was one of those pledgers, until this spring. Hoover, 41, said she long believed that national Komen headquarters spent too much money on staffing and fundraising. The Planned Parenthood incident was the final straw.
Instead of making a pledge to friends in the race, she wrote her first check to Planned Parenthood this year. She also had her women's hockey team participate in a "Stick it To Cancer" tournament last month, which benefited the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Research Center.
"I will still support breast cancer research," Hoover said, "but in different ways."
The state Planned Parenthood chapter, however, is encouraging its supporters to participate in the race, said Jennifer Aulwes, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
"We've gotten phone calls from people who have participated in the race in the past," she said. "We've been clear we want them to support the Komen foundation."
The local Planned Parenthood and Minnesota's Komen affiliate have had several productive conversations in recent months, said Aulwes, adding that her agency plans to apply for a Komen grant in the future.
But for many Minnesotans, the Race for the Cure is less about the merits of Komen and more about memories of mom -- or a sister or friend. Jodi Kusinski, for example, stopped by the Komen kiosk this week to ask about the race schedule. The Bloomington mother has participated in the race since her mother died four years ago.
"Every Mother's Day we send a balloon to the heavens ... and I do the 3-mile [5K] walk," Kusinski said. "This year my sons will do it, too. This [race] means something to me. It keeps my mom's memory alive."
Egan is hoping that the personal, not political, will drive even more Minnesotans to sign up for the race in the week ahead. He'd still love to break participation records on this 20th anniversary race.
"I know that will be a challenge," Egan said. "But we're optimistic."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511