Walk into the Runway offices in Newburyport, MA and you’ll be greeted by a pink neon lit sign that says KEEP DANCING. It’s a tagline that embodies so much about our organization, but most don’t know it’s origin: “About a year or two prior to my mom’s death, Lee Ann Womack’s ‘I Hope You Dance’ became a song she loved,” says Kristin Achtmeyer. Indeed, the spirit of the song- to continue moving through hard times- has been a theme for Kristin and her family since her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis.
When Kristin was in 3rd grade, her mother Cande, was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time. Kristin notes that Cande never sat down and told her children she explicitly had the disease: “breast cancer is different now, but 31 years ago, it wasn’t talked about nearly as much and particularly, with our mother, she didn’t want to talk about it.” What Kristin does remember is the excitement her mother felt when she hit her first milestone, which was to make it to her (and twin sister Nell’s) 8th grade graduation. After that, for Kristin, her mother’s cancer became out-of-sight, out-of-mind until the summer leading into her senior year of high school, when the cancer returned. After a summer of shuffling children to sports camps and vacations, it became clear that fall that the cancer was slowing her mother down: “It came back rapidly and we all kind of knew that maybe this was something she might not be able to fight anymore, but when you’re young, you are so naïve, thinking oh this is how she will be forever, just a little sick, but still here and alive.”
In October of her senior year, Kristin’s mother passed away. Despite Cande’s valiant battle, it still came as a shock and Kristin credits the community around her family for the incredible support that became essential for their survival. In the public moments it was clear- over 1,000 people packed the church for the funeral. In private too, she was blown away at how many people stepped up. In a time before social media, Kristin’s friends drove from all over to keep her company after school, or called her on the phone. Lawrence Academy teachers never waivered in their help to ensure Kristin stayed on top of school work and completed the dreaded college application process. Family, friends, and chiefly her babysitter stepped in to provide Kristin the necessary emotional support: “Denise, our babysitter was a social worker and I would call her everyday, literally everyday. I was lucky to have a support system in that situation, but I think my mom set it up for years. She set up our lives to have this army of people around us when she passed.”
It’s why Runway for Recovery remains so important to Kristin, not only because the memory of her mother is woven throughout it’s mission, but also because “my siblings and I all had somebody after our mom’s passing and I think Runway came about when you realize some people don’t have anyone and they need somebody. I walk the runway and donate because it’s a continuation of thanks for all those who showed up for me.”
Indeed, Kristin has graced many a runway in New England and she remains blown away at the growth of the organization: “the first year I walked, it was more people who knew my mother directly. That felt like more of a community wrapping around us as her children, but years after, classmates of mine from high school and kindergarten began walking in honor of their journey with breast cancer and flash forward to today- I don’t seem to know anyone at the event and I think that’s great because it shows how far we’ve grown into the broader community.”
One thing remains the same year after year and that’s the importance of the backstage community the night of the show- from survivors, to those battling to legacies: “there are models I see that battled and came through breast cancer and I give them a hug because I didn’t get that opportunity with my mom. You see people in all different stages of this disease and realize that you aren’t alone and people want to support you just as much as you want to support them. Particularly for legacies, there is a time after someone dies that you don’t want to celebrate, but eventually you are ready to be surrounded by a community who understands.”
For Kristin, the overall mission of supporting and funding children remains the most critical: “The children who are walking in honor of their mother, who are the age I was when my mother died,” she pauses, “had this been around when my mom died, it would have been so welcome. It gives me a moment of sadness for them, but also, it always remains uplifting.”
As Runway expands out west to #keepdancing, we can’t wait to see a seasoned veteran like Kristin rock the Southern California runway. Indeed, her mother’s presence is never too far away. Of the infamous Lee Ann Womack song she laughs, “it continues to pop on at the most random times- when you’re crying in your car or down in the dumps- quite literally right when I need to hear it.”