There is no easy way to get to Ashland, Kans. It's a little town of some 800 people, about an hour's drive southeast of Dodge City. And, really, there's no easy way to get to Dodge City either.
So, yes, it's easy to feel lost in small towns like Ashland. When Joe LaBelle, a dishwasher at Ashland Health Center, recently lost his grandmother to cancer, he wanted to do something to give women in the area access to cancer-screening services. (The closest digital mammogram machine is 2½ hours away.)
His idea was to raise money by staging a girls' high school basketball game. Ashland Health Center CEO Benjamin Anderson loved the idea, but he soon realized that the Kansas High School Association's rules for such events are hopelessly stifling.
So, against all odds, Anderson tried to go bigger. He contacted the father of Jackie Stiles, the NCAA's alltime leading scorer who's from the small Kansas town of Claflin. She agreed to take part, and the day of the game she flew in on a four-seat plane that bounced around in the famous Kansas wind. When Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper heard about the game, she offered to coach a team. Ruth Riley of the San Antonio Silver Stars made her way to Ashland as well, and Shalee Lehning of the Atlanta Dream showed up even though she had a separated shoulder and couldn't play. (Both coached.)
November 9, 2009
More people kept showing up to help. Former college and high school stars volunteered to play. Cheerleaders from Kansas made the six-hour drive. The Kansas State cheerleaders and pep band came. Pink and white uniforms were donated. Members of Sing for Hope arrived to perform God Bless America. The game got so big that it was broadcast by Fox Sports Net Midwest. "It has been a shocker," Anderson said. "One long shocker. We don't have a hotel in town. All these people are staying at our houses."
The game was played last Friday night before a sellout crowd of 1,000 at the Ashland High gym—with an overflow crowd watching on a big screen at the high school stadium. Anderson's original goal was to raise $100,000. (Donations are still being accepted at wepacthehouse.org.) Now, though, he wants to spark big ideas about health care in small towns all over the country. "We hope people will see what we're doing and copy it," he said. "It's so important for the caregivers in our communities to take care of themselves. And the game is so powerful."