UI Sorority director raises money for cancer research

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JUNE 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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Jeanette Cummins lost her daughter to breast cancer two years ago, but today she said she’s far from alone.

As the house director of Gamma Phi Beta at the University of Iowa, she said, she has received tremendous support from the 59 young women who live in the sorority house she oversees.

And for more than a decade, the 71-year-old said, she’s dedicated her time to cooking, cleaning, mending, and lending an ear to young women in need of a mother figure while they’re away from home, while ensuring “important house rules” are followed.

“I just want to keep things running smoothly,” Cummins said, her hands folded in her lap. “I change light bulbs, unplug toilets, and make sure the girls stay in line.”

Kelsey McCormack, a UI junior who lives in the house when school is in session, said Cummins is a motherly figure, and a big part of the relationships she forms has a lot to do with trust.

“She’s in everyone’s lives, and she cares to know about how the girls are,” McCormack said. “You can feel comfortable and secure when you talk to her.”

But over the last 11 years, Cummins said, the women have provided plenty of companionship in return, namely, after the death of her daughter.

“When my daughter Sally died a few years ago, the girls in my house did a great job of sustaining me through that troubling time,” she said. “When you lose a child, a hole forms in you that you can never really mend, but they were fabulous young ladies, and to this day, they still support me.”

Now, Gamma Phi Beta is helping the fight against cancer.

“I get a little misty when I hear people say that the young don’t care,” Cummins said. “Of course, I can’t speak for 100 percent of young people, but many, many of them are good, compassionate people who will help you when you’re in need.”

In memory of Sally, the sorority holds a silent auction every year. All the earnings go to Cummins, who then donates the money to the UI Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I don’t know how many people are lost to breast cancer every year, but I do know the number is rising,” Cummins said. “Most people think it only affects older women. That’s not true. It’s creeping down into the younger gals, too.”

Cummins said that many young women feel “safe” from breast cancer and that people should always be careful and get checked.

Last spring, the auction brought in more than $3,000.

McKenzie Brandt, the administrative vice president of Gamma Phi Beta, said despite Cummins’ hardships, she is known for her positive attitude and is highly respected among the sorority sisters.

“She is always smiling, and she’s easy to talk to,” Brandt said. “She has a great sense of humor, she’s caring, and you can tell she’s really interested in what we have to say. If she were to leave, the level of respect in the house would drop.”

And in return for their gratitude, Cummins said, she’s agreed to a vow of silence as to what happens in the house.

“This place is like Vegas,” she quipped. “What happens in here stays in here.”

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