Despite spending the better part of four decades on television, Vanessa Echols does not relish being the center of attention.
One day last week, as WFTV co-workers praised her community advocacy and volunteerism during the 4 p.m. news, Echols looked down, protesting, “Just talk about the weather.”
Yet the 61-year-old, who anchors her final newscast Friday, will leave Orlando in June with more than a legion of loyal viewers after 30 years at Channel 9. A breast cancer survivor, Echols will leave a legacy of helping hundreds of women through their own battles with the disease in a way that few charities do — by paying their rent, keeping their utilities connected, arranging transportation to treatment or simply buying them groceries or cleaning their homes.
“People don’t understand that even if you have what’s considered good insurance, the expense of having cancer can wipe you out financially,” she said. “A lot of the people I’ve met — they were working, doing fine financially, until cancer came along and ended everything.”
Compassionate Hands & Hearts Breast Cancer Outreach, the charity Echols launched in 2007, has raised tens of thousands of dollars in the past 15 years, nearly every penny of which went to the women fighting the disease.
Echols never took any salary for herself, though it was essentially a second full-time job.
“I was kind of assuming that maybe she was just the celebrity face of the organization, but not really involved in the day-to-day operations,” said Tai Harden-Moore, a breast cancer survivor helped by the charity. “Most of the time, that’s how it works. Someone like that wouldn’t really be making the decisions, having the conversations, meeting with every person who gets help. But Vanessa does.”
In 2010, Harden-Moore had just moved to Orlando and started law school when she was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of breast cancer. She was 31, unemployed and raising two children, 4 and 5 years old.
Her husband had to leave his job to take care of her and the kids. The rest of their family lived some 3,000 miles away. Soon, they burned through savings and tapped out friends and relatives.
A hospital social worker referred her to Compassionate Hands & Hearts.
“I go with my husband down to the station to meet Vanessa, and she takes me to a private room where we talked a little bit about my situation and what’s going on, and she shares a little bit about her story,” Harden-Moore remembers. “And then she presents me with a gift basket. And it’s filled with all kinds of self-care things — scarves, lotions, soaps — all the things you would need when you’re going through treatment. And she gave me a check for the rent.”
Soon afterward, near the holidays, Echols provided another three months of rent and Christmas presents for Harden-Moore’s children.
“I don’t know what we would have done without her,” Harden-Moore said. “We would have been evicted.”
Echols, of course, deflects any personal credit.
“Everyone keeps saying it’s my organization,” she said. “I always say it’s our organization. I couldn’t do it without the volunteers. And the focus should really be on the patients.”
In 2004, Echols was 43 and getting a routine mammogram, feeling perfectly healthy, when the technician noticed swollen lymph nodes under her arm. That led to an ultrasound, a biopsy and then 48 long hours of waiting to hear a doctor say the words she dreaded: “You have cancer.”
It was stage 2, meaning it had spread beyond the breast to nearby tissue. She underwent six months of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments, a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. For most of it, she kept working her day job — during a year in which four brutal hurricanes hit Florida.
“I think people felt like, ‘Boy, she’s super dedicated’ or something,” Echols said. “But in reality, I felt like that was the only thing that I had control over at that point — being able to work and have something to think about other than cancer.”
Her parents moved from Auburn, Ala., where Echols grew up, to help care for her. Her friends encircled her. Her faith sustained her.
“As a child, most of the people I knew went to church. That’s just what you did in Alabama,” she said. “But as I’ve grown older, it has become a much more personal thing for me. And I don’t know how I would have been able to get through some of the challenges in life, like cancer, without faith. … I believed God was going to get me through this journey successfully.”
But at her chemo sessions, and in waiting rooms, she was surrounded by women and men who didn’t have her income, family support or faith. They came by themselves, sometimes on foot or by bus, to get treatments. They struggled to keep a roof over their heads — at times unsuccessfully — as they fought for survival.
Echols began by trying to find a charity that would help them.
“The more I searched, the more I saw that a lot of organizations were doing cancer research, which is very important, but not providing direct help for people while they were going through treatment,” she said. “So it started organically with just one volunteer, a friend of mine, and we were like, ‘Well, let’s just take this patient to her treatments so she doesn’t have to walk.’”
That volunteer, Jacqueline Randolph, was a long-time graphic artist at WFTV. Both her mother and mother-in-law were breast cancer survivors. Echols impressed her from the beginning.
“She had always been a go-getter — the type that just hit [a problem] head-on,” said Randolph, who moved to Tennessee with her husband two years ago. “But when Vanessa was diagnosed with cancer, she was obedient to God’s calling. She took something that could have been so negative and she used her faith, her courage, her dedication and her compassion to go help others.”
And she learned as she went, Randolph said. Small gestures of kindness — gift bags, visits, arranging rides to treatment — grew to rent checks and mortgage payments and getting utilities turned back on. One woman they helped had been forced to live in her car.
“As the operation grew, we would have bigger meetings, and sometimes hotels would give us a meeting room,” Randolph said. “We would have several of the patients come in together and give them extra gifts, and that was cool because then they built a friendship with each other.”
By 2019, Echols’ charity was raising nearly $55,000 a year from local businesses, individuals and charitable foundations. The average assistance for each patient: about $4,000.
“She’s so genuine and likable, and I will never forget what she did for my daughter,” said Diane Anderson of Orlando. “She helped when my daughter was at her lowest point.”
Kimberly Edmond was in her early 40s in 2007 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, becoming one of Compassionate Hands and Hearts’ first patients.
Edmond was so grateful for the financial help, covering all of her living expenses for a month, that once she was in remission she began volunteering for the organization herself.
But in 2015, Edmond’s cancer came back.
“They threw her a big party, and all the volunteers were there, and they had all these wonderful presents and a check for $2,000,” Anderson said. “I don’t think Kimberly really was able to volunteer with her much more because she got progressively worse, but near the end, when her dog got hit by a car and needed some expensive surgery to survive, Vanessa came to Kimberly’s house and gave her an envelope. She said, ‘Don’t open this until I leave.’”
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It was $1,000 to cover the dog’s surgery.
Sometime in mid-June, Echols will leave Orlando to return to Alabama and help care for her aged parents. She will find a way to volunteer there, she said, once she has a chance to catch her breath and settle in.
She is still hoping someone will take the reins of Compassionate Hands & Hearts in Orlando. But so far, no one has offered.
“I get it. It’s a lot of work,” Echols said. “But as I told one of the volunteers, we have the framework in place. So if someone will step forward, I can provide them with all the information they need.”
Should the charity be closed, it would be a considerable loss, said Harden-Moore, who graduated from law school in 2014 and moved back to Oregon.
“I will always be grateful for her passion in helping survivors, and I do hope somebody will take over the operation,” she said. “But Vanessa’s heart is so big, I have a feeling we’ll hear more about her, even if it’s from Alabama.”