Carrie Helliesen was born in Meridian, Miss. and spent her early adult years just outside of Atlanta, Ga., but she is the proud owner of an official Conch Republic Passport.
She and some fellow teachers were visiting Key West during their Spring Break in 1982. While soaking up the sun and relaxing on Smathers Beach, a handsome young man also happened to be taking his lunch break at a nearby beachside tiki.
“It’s so ironic because he’s not a beach person at all,” Carrie laughed.
The charming young man’s name was Doug. The custom craftsman had been working on a jobsite near the beach and spotted the bikini clad ladies.
“He walked over, introduced himself, and immediately began to charm all of us – especially me,” she remembered.
At the end of her break, Carrie returned to Atlanta, but couldn’t get the dapper young Conch out of her mind. The pair stayed in contact, and she soon began contemplating relocation.
“I thought to myself, maybe I could be a teacher there,” she said.
Doug sent her a passport, and the rest, as they say, is pretty much history.
Carrie currently serves as the Executive Director of American Cancer Society Florida Keys Unit in Key West, and has been in her position for the past 14 years. She is responsible for the management of all programs, services and events throughout the Keys. She’s also in charge of recruiting and training ACS volunteers who coordinate educational programs and events like the three upcoming Upper, Middle and Lower Keys Relay for Life events and the Diamond Gala of the Keys going on this weekend in Key West. Her background in teaching and education certainly comes in handy when heading up the five patient service programs through local businesses and medical facilities.
“This is certainly not a typical 40 hour a week job,” Carrie said.
Carrie brings a certain passion to her position – this year, she is also celebrating her 15th year as a cancer survivor.
Carrie was born in Meridian, Miss. and moved to an Atlanta, Ga. suburb with her family when she was 13. Looking back, it would seem her destiny that she would eventually settle in the Sunshine State.
Her first summer in college, she and four of her closest girlfriends thought it would be a riot to spend the summer working at Disneyworld.
“It was the very first summer Disney opened,” she remembered. “I was working all over Tomorrowland flipping burgers and wearing this funny little space age outfit. I really wanted to be one of the characters, but we had fun anyway.”
She earned her undergraduate degree in Elementary and Mentally Handicapped Education at the University of Georgia, and went on the Southeastern Louisiana University to earn a Master’s degree in Reading Education and Psychology.
Her teaching abilities are wide and varied. After relocating to Key West, she taught just about every subject and nearly every grade level.
“I started the Handicapped Job Placement Council,” she explained. “I taught English and Literature at the High School Home School and also worked at Florida Keys Community College as an Adjunct Reading Instructor.”
In the spring of 1994, Carrie had just signed a contract to teach at the Montessori school in Key West when she fell ill.
A rare, malignant thymoma that had been slowly growing for years had reached the size of a grapefruit. Even her oncologist had to research the treatment options for this particularly unusual situation. With the help of supportive treatment staff, Carrie underwent six months of chemotherapy and open chest surgery. Just for good measure, she concluded her treatment with six weeks of radiation.
“Ten months later, when I was ready to go back to work, there happened to be a part time position available with the American Cancer Society,” she said.
By partnering with local businesses, particularly medical and health facilities to disseminate literature about proper health screenings for early detection,
Carrie is now involved with a different form of education.
“We started with jail and bail and rubber ducky races in Key West, and I eventually piloted the first Relay for Life in both the Lower and Middle Keys. By partnering with businesses for cancer specific information and educating the public through speaking with the ultimate goal of eliminating cancer altogether – well, all those things are the reason I’m here today.”
Besides winning her own personal battle with cancer, Carrie traveled to Washington, DC in 2006 to participate in the Celebration on the Hill, a nationwide Relay event.
“It was amazing,” she remembers. “Representatives from every state lined up around the Mall while over 10,000 survivors walked the lap around the pond. It was as emotional for me as anyone else’s first Relay for Life. I hope to go again in 2010.”
Carrie and Doug live in Key West with their three dogs, Buster, Toby and Karma. Their daughter Carly, 23, is currently in graduate school at USF.
The couple always enjoys down time on the water in the backcountry, and of all the places she’s lived, Carrie said, after 27 years, she considers Key West her home.
“You get it, you know it and you live it.”