One couple gives big to cancer fundraiser

The annual Breast Cancer Gala Dinner is an opportunity for people to open their hearts – and their wallets – to help support local charities that work to prevent and treat breast cancer. 

Exemplifying what the event is all about is local couple Michael Maes and Ellen Cuylaerts, whose contributions at the latest event went above and beyond, organizers said. 

“Ellen and Michael are treasures for us at the Breast Cancer Foundation,” the Breast Cancer Foundation’s co-administrator Janette Fitzgerald said. “I know there are many generous, kindhearted people on this island, but this couple must be in the top 10.” 

This year’s live auction at the Breast Cancer Gala Dinner raised more than $90,000. About a third of that, nearly $30,000, came from Mr. Maes, who has been supporting the cause for years. 

“I have been fortunate in my life and I still am fortunate in many ways, health included, so personally it’s my goal to give back to the community,” Mr. Maes said. 

He said it is a “goose bumps” moment every year at the event when survivors of breast cancer and those with family or friends who have been affected by the disease are asked to stand up. 

“Almost everyone stands up, and at that point you see how important it is to donate to charities like these,” Mr. Maes said. “If you donate, big or small, it doesn’t matter, just do it because so many people really need it and even if it’s $10, it does make a difference.” 

In addition to donating to the foundation, Mr. Maes plans to donate items he bought in the auction to other worthy causes. 

One such item is a photo session with local photographer Melissa Wolfe. For the past three years, Mr. Maes has bought this item in the auction, and every year he donates it to a Caymanian breast cancer survivor. 

“My idea is that person gets to shine in all her glory so she can feel proud and beautiful again,” Mr. Maes said. “I think they are beautiful people and they have an enormous strength, a great will, and perseverance.” 

“Be proud of yourself,” Mr. Maes tells survivors. “You fought the war and you won it.” 

This year Mr. Maes also won a diving trip to Honduras, which he plans to donate to a Caymanian student who has completed the Young Environmental Leadership Course. The course is a Central Caribbean Marine Institute program that teaches students about the marine environment and how to scuba dive. 

Mr. Maes, a wildlife and underwater filmmaker, and Ms. Cuylaerts, a wildlife and underwater photographer, are also big supporters of CCMI. Mr. Maes said that by donating the Honduras dive trip to a student, he wants to “give him or her a wonderful opportunity to experience something unique with the ocean, so he or she may become an even better ambassador for the ocean, corals and marine life.” 

Ms. Cuylaerts, whose mother survived breast cancer and whose grandmother died of a cancer that started as breast cancer, says she brought her husband to the gala five years ago, “but he became their most loyal supporter.” 

Ms. Cuylaerts donates a photographic canvas every year to be auctioned. The 40-by-50 inch canvas, with an underwater image taken in Cayman by Ms. Cuylaerts, went for $2,200 at the auction this year. 

Until a cure for cancer is found, she said, screening and education are “so important,” especially in a place where cancer can still be a sensitive subject. 

“We absolutely love the Breast Cancer Foundation because the people involved are all caring and involved,” Ms. Cuylaerts said. “You feel that positive energy during the gala and it’s an honor to be a part of it every year.” 

Mr. Maes said he is impressed by those who make the event happen every year, and that he has the “deepest respect” for Kim Lund and James Bovell, who started the event. 

“Every year we see the survivors coming back, and they shine,” Mr. Maes said. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile, and that’s why everybody should help however they can.” 

Ellen Cuylaerts and Michael Maes
Ellen Cuylaerts and Michael Maes. – Photo: Better Angle Photography