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Mar 12, 2019 2:20 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

East Hampton Breast Cancer Survivor To Be Honored

Rita Wasserman and Mimi Friedfeld at a benefit in 2017. PRESS FILE
Mar 12, 2019 3:13 PM

The Ellen Hermanson Foundation has been a lifesaver for Rita Wasserman in more ways than one.It was there for her when she was reeling after a breast cancer diagnosis in 2003, at the age of 72. And it gave her a reason to carry on nearly a decade ago, when she was dealing with the sudden death of her husband of 50 years, Ted Wasserman.

Grief-stricken, with no motivation to get out of bed, Ms. Wasserman said her years-long commitment to procuring donations for the raffle held at the end of the foundation’s main fundraiser, Ellen’s Run, was the push she needed to face the day.

“What got me out of the house was that I knew I had to get gifts for the runners’ raffle,” Ms. Wasserman said. “Ellen’s Run saved my life. I knew I had to get out. So I would put on a happy face—and then collapse at night.”

On March 30, Ms. Wasserman, 87, will be honored for the years of commitment she has shown to the organization that has given her—and other East End women battling breast cancer—so much at the Ellen Hermanson Foundation’s annual community fundraiser party, “In the Pink,” at 230 Elm in Southampton. She will receive the foundation’s Lifetime Community Achievement Award at the event.

An aggressive devotion to community service has been a lifelong trait of Ms. Wasserman, long before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The part-time Springs resident—who spends the colder months living at an over-55 community in Walnut Creek, California, 45 minutes outside San Francisco—said in an interview last week that immersing herself in community causes is simply in her blood.

“I’ve always wanted to make a difference, so to speak,” Ms. Wasserman said, speaking with a jovial and carefree kind of energy often not heard even in people decades younger.

During her years as a young mother living in New York City, Ms. Wasserman worked for Citizens for Clean Air, and when the family later moved to Westchester County, she found herself on the school board and active in many environmental causes as well.

Ms. Wasserman fondly recalled nearly being arrested while protesting the Indian Point nuclear power plant, laughing as she said her husband intervened to keep her out of prison.

“It’s always been part of me to just not sit back,” she said. “I’m also blessed with a lot of energy. I don’t know where it comes from—I just have it. It’s amazing. I almost resent going to sleep at night, even though I love sleeping, because I’m just so excited about the next thing.”

For someone accustomed to always being on the go and attached to a cause, a cancer diagnosis was the ultimate roadblock. “It goes right to your core,” she said. “I don’t have the words to explain it. It’s beyond explanation. Your whole body gets riveted.”

Ms. Wasserman did not need chemotherapy but spent an entire summer, five days per week, undergoing radiation treatments in Riverhead. She said the Ellen Hermanson Foundation was a source of unwavering support for her in that difficult time, from helping her afford the trips to Riverhead, to providing house cleaning, and also providing access to counseling.

“It was such an unbelievable gift from them that I decided, then and there, that I would do whatever I could to help this organization, because they’re incredible,” Ms. Wasserman said.

The feeling is mutual, according to the organization’s founder, Julie Ratner. She is the sister of Ellen Hermanson, the foundation’s namesake, who died after a battle with breast cancer in 1995, at the age of just 42.

“She is absolutely central to everything we do in this foundation,” Ms. Ratner said of Ms. Wasserman. She pointed out that Ms. Wasserman’s involvement in a seemingly endless number of East End- and East Hampton-based organizations—from working as an usher at Guild Hall and Bay Street Theater, to serving on the Springs Citizens Advisory Committee and the East Hampton Democratic Committee, to name just a few—has made her an invaluable member of the foundation.

“She’s like the unofficial mayor of East Hampton. She’s involved in everything,” Ms Ratner said. “When she does outreach, whether it’s getting raffle items or anything else, she’s able to obtain whatever we need.

“She’s absolutely beloved,” she continued. “Her enthusiasm, her loyalty, her dedication and her embrace of all we do and belief in our mission makes her one of our best cheerleaders. I adore her.”

Ms. Wasserman said she was thrilled to be chosen for the honor, and plans to fly home to attend the benefit. “It means so much to me,” she said.

Despite being less than three years away from her 90th birthday, Ms. Wasserman, true to form, does not plan on slowing down anytime soon when it comes to her commitment to the foundation. “I’m very proud of [the foundation] and will continue to work hard for them for the rest of my days,” she said.

The motivation is the memory, unlikely to fade, of how the foundation has always been there for her, and women just like her, in a time of need.

“They have support groups for people before surgery, and after surgery, for families,” she said. “They have counseling. I went for counseling with my husband and I went on my own. Everything you need is there. All you have to do is make a phone call and it opens a capillary of different roads you can go on.

“There are people I met that did not know about it,” Ms. Wasserman added. “And they’ve come to me and said, ‘You saved my life telling me about it.’”

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