In 2012, sisters Katie Kerr Clarke ’87 and Kendra Kerr Olvany ’82 opened the welcome gates to a club no one wants to join. They have been building community among those affected by breast cancer ever since.
“The Licorice Project embraces and empowers women by connecting breast cancer patients and survivors, sharing resources and spreading unexpected joy,” says Clarke, who was diagnosed in 2011 and very quickly discovered the benefit of a strong community. “Almost the minute I was diagnosed, a few women in my neighborhood who had had breast cancer came to my door and offered their support.”
Clarke—an elementary school teacher who lives in the Chicago area, not far from her sister—says she was soon mentoring other people, even during her own treatment. “Kendra saw what I was doing to connect and mentor people going through this experience,” Clarke says. “She came up with an idea to use technology to help change the breast cancer experience.”
At the time, Olvany, who holds an MBA and had a business career before taking time off to raise her children, was in the process of what she calls “re-launching” herself. “When Katie was going through treatment, I was taking several coding and design courses to learn how to launch a tech startup,” Olvany says. “I knew that technology could be used to solve problems, and I saw right away a problem my sister was having: When you’re first diagnosed, you’re inundated with information, and it’s overwhelming.”
The Licorice Project started as a website that filtered and organized resources for people affected by breast cancer, but it quickly grew into something bigger. Today, the project connects people to others who have gone through the experience of breast cancer, helps manage expectations and provides support to patients and survivors alike—both through events in the Chicago area and through its website and Facebook presence, which members can access from anywhere.
The sisters say being part of an online network helps people make offline connections they wouldn’t otherwise know about—and both online and offline connections can help staunch the fear and provide that necessary community in times of need.
“Also, many people want to help but don’t know how, while other people need help but can’t always ask for it,” Olvany says. The Licorice Project facilitates both, and, the sisters say, strengthens the community through in-person interactions. In addition to maintaining their online presence, the newly-designated nonprofit holds seasonal gatherings and workshops in Chicago and sends “TLP Treat Bags” to new members of the community, each containing small surprises intended to boost the women’s spirits.
Long before Clarke was diagnosed, the sisters participated in a breast cancer awareness walk in San Diego, where they were delighted by the small treats that people passed out to walkers on the sidelines. The next year, they started their own family tradition of handing out licorice at a Chicago walk. The year after that, when they came with their licorice, Clarke and Olvany heard people calling them “The Licorice Ladies,” and they were touched by what it meant to put a smile on someone’s face and “spread unexpected joy.”
“When we were naming our organization, we landed on The Licorice Project because it’s upbeat and hopeful and symbolic of a small treat that can make a big difference,” Clarke says. “We know the benefits of finding those moments of unexpected joy in a difficult time.”
Learn more about The Licorice Project.
—By Julia Munemo