Two best friends raise awareness and funds with annual golf tournament
They are each other’s best friend. The two women, both 33, met in first grade at St. Mary of the Assumption in Upper Marlboro and have been close for 27 years. They laugh at each other’s jokes and finish one another’s sentences.
Together, JoAnn DeCesaris Wellington and Elizabeth “Beth” Prout Lennon have made an impact locally through the annual DeCesaris/Prout Championship Golf Tournament. They founded it eight years ago and have raised over $770,000 for cancer research. Yet, Beth didn’t make it to JoAnn’s wedding in February.
“I wanted an all-white wedding,” said JoAnn dreamily. “I had a white dress by designer Stephen Yearick. There were white hydrangeas, roses and peonies everywhere. White linens on the tables. The wedding planner had huge white tents erected on the lawn of my mother’s house in Davidsonville.”
The region was walloped by three feet of snow the night before JoAnn’s Feb. 6 nuptials with Tempus executive Daniel Wellington. In the nick of time, a snow plow delivered Daniel to the wedding site, accompanied by his three children from a previous marriage. A second snow plow brought the minister, followed by a caravan of cars containing guests and the DJ.
Beth was stuck at the Westin Hotel in Annapolis, snowed in. Anticipating the worst, Beth and family members had come up from their home, built on her family’s farm in Friendship, and checked into the hotel.
“I figured the county roads around Annapolis would be plowed promptly and we’d be able to get to the wedding,” she sighed. Instead, the contingent at the Westin watched the nuptials via webcast on a laptop. “I cried all through the ceremony,” Beth confessed. Now that the honeymoon is over, the two girlfriends have returned to what passes for normalcy.
They are gearing up for their annual golf tournament on June 25 to raise funds for cancer research and awareness education. This all-volunteer project consumes an average of 15 to 20 hours a week year round, reaching 40 hours or more as the big day nears.
Beth’s dad, Charlie Prout, is a volunteer. Beth’s brother Bill and his wife Megan fly in from Texas to help. JoAnn’s mother and her sisters, Angela, Elizabeth, Kristin and Marie, and her brothers-in-law, Brian Messineo and Chris Duffy, are also active participants in this very family affair.
One of the DeCesaris granddaughters, Gaetsie Duffy, designed one of the logos used by the foundation — a double set of ribbons symbolizing the fight against ovarian and lung cancer. Elizabeth DeCesaris, a younger sister of JoAnn, is the foundation’s graphic designer.
Beth, a 1999 University of Maryland, College Park graduate, is married to Verizon employee Chris Lennon. They have two children: Vincent, 9, and Sophia, 4. At Herrington on the Bay Catering in Deale, Beth is the longest-tenured event designer on the staff. “I design 75 to 100 events a year,” she said. “Weddings, auctions, galas and corporate events — you name it! We did JoAnn and Daniel’s engagement party.”
JoAnn, the second of five sisters, attended Marymount in Arlington, Va., and is certified as a graduate jeweler gemologist by the Gemological Institute of America. JMD is her business, specializing in private diamond sales.
Their altruism began with a misdiagnosis.
Eight years ago, Beth’s mother, Maureen Prout, learned she had stage II ovarian cancer. Earlier symptoms had been misdiagnosed by her gynecologist. A few months later, JoAnn’s father, Geaton DeCesaris Jr., was diagnosed with lung cancer, though he was not a smoker. In search of a cure, Geaton and 40 family members flew to Europe and visited the holy shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. There, they immersed themselves in the sacred waters.
Shortly before discovering he had cancer, Geaton had sold his business, Washington Homes, Inc., to K. Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. He became president of Hovnanian Investment Group, a K. Hovnanian subsidiary. The year of his diagnosis, Geaton and his wife, also named JoAnn, and their children presented Anne Arundel Medical Center with a gift — the largest it had ever received — of $3 million.
In their honor, the cancer center, then undergoing a $13 million expansion, was renamed the Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Cancer Institute.
Desperate for information, Beth and JoAnn spent hours online researching their parents’ cancers — and came up nearly empty-handed.
Not content to sit idly by, the women, both avid golfers, offered to volunteer at an all-women’s golf tournament designed to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.
They wound up running the event, which raised $15,000 for ACS in 2002. “I was there to help Beth,” said JoAnn.
The next year, the golf tournament was renamed the DeCesaris-Prout Championship Golf Tournament and it took off. With Geaton and Maureen on hand to cheer the golfers on, over 144 golfers and their families attended the tournament and raised $50,000.
Though he fought valiantly, Geaton DeCesaris passed away in April 2006 at age 50. Maureen Prout bravely battled her spreading cancer, undergoing over 100 rounds of chemotherapy, before succumbing in January 2007 at the age of 64.
From 2003 through 2007, the proceeds from the tournament were donated to ACS. In 2008, the women established the DeCesaris-Prout Cancer Foundation. They currently distribute the funds to several organizations.
One of the recipients is the Mercy Medical Center Foundation. “They’re very organized and do amazing work,” commented Sara Fawcett-Lee, senior director of development for the MMC Foundation. “Their donation is earmarked for lung and ovarian cancer patients. They do thorough research before they make a gift. They have identified what their hard-earned money will do. They have high standards because they have been touched personally. They celebrate and honor the lives of their parents and make a difference.”
Gifts from the DeCesaris-Prout Cancer Foundation have been used to assist inner-city patients at the hospital who lack insurance, and lung cancer research studies. Last fall, the hospital inducted the two women, Fawcett-Lee said, “into our Circle of Mercy as our way of thanking them.”
An event for families and friends. “Now, there are so many people that want to participate in the tournament, but we limit it to 164 golfers,” said Beth. “We have two groups on every hole and, on some holes, there are three groups.”
This year’s tournament is June 25 at the Twin Shields Golf Club in Dunkirk. “We have a waiting list,” Beth said. “They love this tournament. All their families and friends are there. Everyone knows someone with cancer. Many of them knew our parents.”
“I have always admired their resolve towards combating cancer,” said Mark McElrath, community manager for ACS. “What is truly impressive is their ability to mobilize countless others to join the fight against cancer while raising education awareness about the issue.
“It is difficult to measure, but Beth and JoAnn, through their efforts, help save lives,” Mark said. “The ACS, through the years, has reaped the benefits of the great golf tournament that Beth and JoAnn host each year, which regularly nets six figures. Although ACS is now one of many beneficiaries instead of the exclusive beneficiary, the ACS is please to maintain and build on a wonderful community partnership we share with the DeCesaris-Prout Cancer Foundation.”
Golfers arrive from all over the U.S. for the tournament. Fred Schaufeld, chairman and founder of NEW Customer Service Companies, Inc., usually flies in from Virginia in his helicopter and lands near the first hole. Still more folks swarm to volunteer to drive the golfers around the course, man the registration tables, run the silent auctions, games and contests or handle hundreds of other last-minute tasks.
“At one hole, we have a ‘double your money’ game,” said JoAnn. “Arnold Palmer’s Tea, a mix of sweet tea, vodka and lemonade is a hit at the tournament. We have food, music, a DJ and Rita’s Italian Ice.”
“There is a lot going on,” added Beth. “We have special dedications and speakers who provide information about cancer awareness.”
The tournament attracts sponsorships, donations and in-kind donations from businesses big and small throughout the region. “Despite the economy, people, friends and family are still committed,” Beth said firmly. “Our sponsors remain committed. Plus, new ones keep joining our efforts. Our volunteers are growing, too.”
Foundation is more than a golf tournament
The dynamic duo does not slow down after the tournament. Last year, they raised still more funds for the cause with two happy hour events in November at the Acme Bar & Grill in downtown Annapolis. During a pounding rainstorm in August, they hosted Bike for the Fight, a ride that began at the Harley-Davidson showroom in Annapolis and ended in Frederick.
“Not everyone plays golf,” said JoAnn.
Beth nodded. “We reached out to a whole new group of people. They were taking cards and brochures from us like they never heard of the warning signs of lung or ovarian cancer.”
Beth and JoAnn understand their mission. “We both have full-time jobs and families. We keep the foundation’s expenses below 10 percent of what we raise,” said Beth. “We’d like to raise more money for research and awareness. Most importantly, we’d like a cure. Our parents stood for hope. We don’t want other daughters or sons to go through what we did.”
“My daughter Sophia asked why she can’t have a Na-Na like other kids. A grandmother,” Beth said with a catch in her voice. JoAnn bit her lip in sympathy.
“My son Vincent said to Sophia: ‘God gave Na-Na cancer so she could teach others about cancer.’”
For information about the DeCesaris-Prout Cancer Foundation and the eighth annual DeCesaris-Prout Championship Golf Tournament, visit the Web site at www.dpcancerfoundation.org.