‘You get a good feeling’: Topsham volunteer honored for work with cancer patients

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TOPSHAM — The days on Gary Kerns’ calendar page are awash with orange and yellow marks representing commitments that leave him little free time.

Yellow is for taking his wife to Parkinson’s disease therapy; orange days are when he gives lifts to seniors through People Plus and drives cancer patients to treatment appointments.

“This week I have two (cancer) and a People Plus,” Kerns said as he glanced at the calendar Monday in his Topsham home. “Plus two (for my) wife.”

It is for the work with cancer patients that the American Cancer Society named Kerns a Sandra C. Labaree Volunteer Values Award winner. The honor is named for a long-time ACS volunteer from Maine who died from breast cancer in 2000.

“The award is the most honored accolade by the Society in New England, and it recognizes Kerns’ remarkable accomplishments in support of the Society’s mission to celebrate lives, to save lives and to lead the fight for a world without cancer,” the society said in a press release.

Kerns’ volunteer work with ACS, which began 12 years ago, has included involvement in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and Relay For Life annual walks.

“My brother had pancreatic cancer, so we did a Relay for Life for him,” Kerns said.

He has spent the past year and a half as a driver for ACS’s Road to Recovery program, driving cancer patients to and from appointments for free.

“I like to volunteer,” said Kerns, a Vietnam War veteran and U.S. Army heavy equipment mechanic who spent 43 years as a phone equipment installer before retiring in 2014.

“While I was working, I couldn’t involve myself as much as I wanted to,” he said. “So once I retired I was like full bore, ‘I’ve got to do it now.'”

Kerns averages two to three days a week transporting people. That time includes the trips to and from the destination, as well as the time in between, which can total several hours.

“I just brought a lady into Bath from Waldoboro,” he said. “And it’s 15 minutes, then her radiation’s done and you take her back home.”

Another appointment this week should run 2 1/2 or three hours, “so I’ll be around for her when she gets out,” Kerns said.

In between, he added, “I’ve got a book.”

Kerns’ trips take him as far as Lewiston, Augusta and Scarborough. “I try to stay local if I can,” he said. “I don’t want to get too far away, (in case) something happened to my wife; I want to be close enough to get back.”

The Labaree award came as a surprise to him. The ACS notified him of the honor this spring, and in the summer tried to schedule a date to present it to him.

Kerns took a grateful but humble view of the award.

“I said, ‘well I’m in Branson, Missouri, on vacation, so maybe some other time,'” he recalled. He had to be at a Parkinson’s caregivers’ meeting during another attempt to give him the award, but he got out early enough to rush in and accept the award.

“Boom-boom, it’s done,” Kerns said with a chuckle.

The greatest award, of course, is the joy he gets from helping those in need. An activity that fills his heart instead of his wallet.

“It’s just something I’ve wanted to do, and you get a good feeling,” Kerns said. “You should be paid with that.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 780-9085 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Gary Kerns of Topsham spends hours each week driving cancer patients to and from treatment appointments.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.