It turns out it’s not only preschoolers who adored Denise Thom. When the Phoenix Montessori preschool teacher was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in October 2012, her community rallied around her.

breast cancer fundraiser

Denise Thom (second from right) attended the inaugural Digs for Denise volleyball tournament in 2014. She passed away a few weeks later. Photo courtesy: Digs for Denise

“When Denise was first diagnosed, I figured she would power through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation and then be fine,” says Erinn Cassidy. “I didn’t know anyone who died from breast cancer and it never entered my mind that something like that would happen to someone I loved.” Erinn first met Denise when she enrolled her daughter, Brooke, in the school in 2004. The two instantly connected and developed a friendship beyond teacher/parent.

In January 2014, Denise’s breast cancer began to spread. By June, it had spread to her bones.  “It was at that time it hit me that the outcome was grave.”

Erinn was overwhelmed but wanted to do something, either to ease Denise’s pain or make life easier for future breast cancer patients. Volleyball was at another center of their lives. Erinn and Denise’s daughters played on the same club volleyball team and Denise and her husband, Rob, played co-ed volleyball with Erinn and her husband, Sean. Erinn decided to host a volleyball tournament in Denise’s name and Digs for Denise was born.

“The objective in the beginning was to give people a way to celebrate Denise and to host an event with a purpose, centered around her,” says Erinn, Rob and their crew of volunteers pulled together their first volleyball tournament in just six weeks.

breast cancer fundraiser

Digs for Denise, now in its fifth year, celebrates the life of Denise Thom and fundraises for breast cancer research. The check includes Denise’s signature. Photo courtesy: Digs for Denise

“If we just covered our costs in that first year, I would have been happy. We ended up raising $6,500 because we just had so much support,” she says. “People were throwing things at me, all because of their love for Denise.” The proceeds were donated to Wings of Karen, a Washington-based non-profit organization supporting breast cancer research.

“At the end of tournament, Denise turned to me and said ‘you have to promise me you will never stop doing this event,’” recalls Erinn.  And, she’s stayed true to her word.

Denise Thom passed away in September 2014, just a few weeks after the first Digs for Denise event was completed.

Fast forward four years and the Digs of Denise event has grown to include more than 100 players on 27 teams in six divisions.  “We have raised more than $35,000 in the past four years, all donated directly to Wings of Karen in Denise’s name,” Erinn says citing Wings of Karen’s powerful network of researchers in the Pacific Northwest.

Digs for Denise started as a grass volleyball tournament and Erinn says they will not move away from that key component of the July event. However the organizers are looking for ways to create other opportunities for people, including adding lawn games to the 2018 agenda. They are also partnering with the Rotary Club of Maple Valley to offer an incentive to those who register for both Digs for Denise and Taste of the Valley, both scheduled for July 28, 2018.

No matter your age or volleyball skills, you are invited to form a team to play in the Digs for Denise volleyball tournament on July 28, 2018 to raise funds for breast cancer research. Photo courtesy: Digs for Denise

Along with Rob, Erinn is joined by a dedicated committee including Jeff Potter, Natalie St. Aubin, Lanita Landru, Mackenzie and Samantha Thom, Karla Sperber, Sara Wood, and Lisa Razzore.  There are many more volunteers that help make the event possible.

When asked what Denise would say about the fundraiser and participation now in its fifth year, Erinn says, “Denise would be very proud of the number of people involved. She would love the fact that people are gathering together, enjoying each other and being active outside.”

During a midday break in the action, Rob will share Denise’s story with everyone in attendance. “Not many people get their life celebrated like this on an annual basis,” says Erinn. “Denise took care of my kids for eight years. I love that for just one day, I get to help take care of her family and friends.”

No volleyball experience is necessary to participate in the volleyball tournament. Cheer on the participation, play lawn games or participate in the silent auction and raffle. To learn more, visit the Digs for Denise Facebook page. New teams are always welcome.

Digs for Denise
July 28, 2018
8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Summit Trail Middle School in Maple Valley
Registration is now open. To register for the volleyball tournament, click here.

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