Inside Track: Courage, determination define new Komen executive director
Jennifer Jurgens hopes her own breast cancer experiences will result in new ideas for local organization.
Breast cancer has touched Jennifer Jurgens’ life more than once. The first time was when her mother died of the disease in 1984 when Jurgens was 12 years old and her mother was 36.
She crossed paths with the malady again in 2009 when she too was diagnosed with it. She feels fortunate: The cancer was detected before it invaded her milk ducts, known in medical circles as mammary ductal carcinoma, the most common type of breast cancer in women. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery but did not require chemotherapy or radiation treatments, and today has a clean bill of health.
Jurgens indicates she’s still sorting out what it means to survive a disease that claims the lives of approximately 39,500 women in the U.S. annually.
“Maybe it was a lesson in empathy,” said Jurgens. “Call it karma, call it fate, but when it came time for me to hire on full time (with the West Michigan Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure), I decided I wanted to be the boob superhero. Some of the things are so hard to deal with — humor is the only option sometimes.”
Jurgens is not afraid to poke fun at a disease that sees an annual average of 230,480 new cases diagnosed — 2,140 of them men, according to the American Cancer Society. But make no mistake: She takes seriously the new position she started in January as executive director of the West Michigan Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, where her responsibilities include managing all aspects of the local office, which includes developing partnerships, fundraising, building community support, overseeing volunteers, committees and the community grants program, and managing the recruitment and development of the office staff.
She also will serve as spokesperson for the affiliate on both the national and local levels and be responsible for bringing information on breast cancer research, national and global developments and resources back to West Michigan.
Services the West Michigan affiliate provides include education and providing early detection services and breast cancer screening for people in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon, Montcalm and Newaygo counties. The affiliate changed its name in 2011 from Grand Rapids to West Michigan.
This is Jurgens’ first paid position with a nonprofit, but she is no stranger to philanthropic endeavors. Her volunteer work includes serving on Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids LaughFest cabinet, which raises funds for the event that last year drew 56,294 people.
Jurgens has a personal connection with the local Gilda’s Club.
“I think it is one of the few non-medical cancer support organizations I have heard of in the area,” she said. “I am sort of drawn there by a number of friends (who’ve received support).”
Her professional work has included working on marketing campaigns for Fortune 1000 companies and nonprofit organizations. She specializes in direct marketing, marketing automation, email marketing, content marketing and social media, and has expertise in the integration of new software platforms to expedite and simplify digital communications.
Local companies she’s worked for include U.S. Xchange, Adtegrity.com and BDO Seidman.
Her contract work includes automated processes, a marketing technique that uses software to match marketing messages with the targeted preferences of the people who receive them.
“The concept of one message to many people results in a flat response. So instead of blasting people with thousands of postcards to an audience (with the same message), I am more involved in the study of identifying your best prospects and creating the messaging that nurtures them until they’re ready for an introduction to a salesperson.”
She’s convinced automated processes work, pointing to a test pilot for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign she oversaw a few years ago that increased donations by 42 percent.
Courage and determination define Jurgens, traits she credits learning from her grandmother, Jane Steenstra, who, with her husband, co-owned Steenstra’s Royal Dutch Bakery in Grandville. She recalls that, while a student at Calvin Christian High School, she debated with her teachers the veracity of predestination theology versus free will.
She’s had a front-row seat in retail. While in high school, Jurgens worked at the family-owned Jurgens & Holtvluwer clothing store that was located on Chicago Drive and Grandville Avenue SW near Clyde Park. She still remembers getting the creepy-crawlies when she had to go down to the store’s basement to bring up merchandise and hearing, up above, the creaking of the wooden floor.
But she also remembers how she learned to “read” customers, enabling her to get a sense of how to close a sale. “I sold a lot of polyester suits to a lot of Dutch women,” said Jurgens. “We worked very hard at the sidewalk sales.”
In college, Jurgens worked for Creative Ice, owned by Scott De Gaynor, from whom she says she learned first-hand about optimism and integrity.
“I never met someone so positive,” she said. “I call him father No. 2. He’s a real influence on how to stay happy in business and how to handle problems.”
She enjoys reading, especially science fiction, and is a fan of the Fantastic Four. She has fond members of going to Saturday matinees to watch the latest creature feature at the former Vista Drive-In Movie Theater in Standale and then graduating to grittier fare such as “Mad Max.” The Star Wars franchise left her breathless.
As for her new job, Jurgens is still getting her feet wet, but she already has on her radar some new ideas she wants to implement for the local Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a 5K run/fitness walk held last year at RiverTown Crossings mall in Grandville and tentatively scheduled this year in late September.
“We need some fresh ideas,” Jurgens said. “I have a committee willing to try new things.”
Another improvement Jurgens wants to see happen is a quicker turnaround time when patients undergo a mammogram and are told the results are “abnormal,” and then are made to wait an agonizingly long time to find out what that means.
But she doesn’t stop there.
“I have a different approach to nonprofits,” she said. “People have a belief that nonprofits should do the absolute good with the fewest resources. I’m intrigued by that contradiction and what I can do to operate it a little more as a business, and invest in our people and increase our mission exponentially.”
One service Jurgens is particularly proud of is the genetics testing Komen provides, which helps determine if a person is at risk for breast cancer or discern the outlook for a person diagnosed with cancer, which can help determine which treatments to use.
“The testing piece is fascinating to me,” said Jurgens. “It’s very helpful information.”
She draws a comparison between the medical care her mother received in the early 1980s and her own experience some 25 years later. “I had a fabulous mastectomy. The diagnostics are better and they’re able to do things less invasive and faster.”
Still, she adds, “I’m not going to say they’ve made great advances in the way they treat breast cancer, which is two options — poison it or cut it out, but the way we treat women has improved. And people are more open to early detection.”