Gloria Giunta started volunteering at Tampa’s American Cancer Society because she felt fortunate and wanted to give back.
Little did she know how much it would change her life.
It was 1993. Giunta and her sister were asked to run the society’s Flamingo Fantasy Ball, but their mother was battling lung cancer. Throwing a soiree was the last thing she wanted to do.
Still, she said yes and spent months shuttling from planning meetings to her mother’s home, and eventually to the hospital. “I would go to the American Cancer Society during the day and check on her every night,” she says.
One of the last visits to her mother came the day of the ball. Unable to speak, Mary Carlino wrote a note on a piece of paper. “Proud” is all it said, Giunta recalls. Her mother died the next day.
“That was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I couldn’t save my mother but I could help others.”
For 20 years, Giunta has had a laser-like focus on raising money for the local ACS chapter. She has spent the past 16 years organizing one of the area’s major charity social events: the Cattle Barons’ Ball. The 2013 event achieved a major milestone, raising $1 million for the organization and its research efforts.
Giunta knows that she’s become the face of the event she describes simply as “boots and chaps and cowboy hats.” She treats the volunteer duty more like a full-time job, heading to the Kennedy Boulevard offices nearly every day.
She works underneath a framed poster from “The Devil Wears Prada,” a tongue-in-cheek nod to her reputation as a taskmaster, much like the tyrannical fashion magazine editor Meryl Streep plays in the movie.
“Leave your tiara at the door,” she says of her warning to volunteers who think helping out for the Cattle Barons’ Ball is about recognition and not dedication.
She says her loyalty to the Cancer Society was inspired by her mother, and her late mother-in-law, Tampa philanthropist Grace Greco Giunta. But its importance became even more profound when she faced her own battle with breast cancer 14 years ago.
Initially, Giunta was in denial that she had cancer. How could somebody who spent so much time fighting to beat cancer through research be sick?
“I was completely let down when I was diagnosed,” she says. “I made the mistake of thinking I was invincible.”
She says she knew something was wrong, but kept putting off a trip to the doctor because she was busy. When she finally visited an oncologist and took a couple of tests, the news hit fast. There was a lump the size of a lima bean, it was aggressive and it needed to be removed immediately.
“You think this has to happen to someone else,” she says.
The six rounds of chemotherapy, three weeks apart, nearly killed her, she says. She landed in the hospital with dangerously high temperatures and her daily trips to the Cancer Society became impossible.
Her survival and health today fortify Giunta’s commitment to raising money for the organization. There’s a sense of gratitude when she walks by the society’s “wig room” for women who lose their hair to chemotherapy. The self-described shopaholic says she could buy her own wigs, but she realizes some women cannot.
“It made me realize it wasn’t affordable for everyone,” says Giunta, now 62.
She says she wants to raise money to find less toxic therapies for cancers, and for education efforts. Giunta doesn’t want to see others ignore signs of cancer like she did.
But it also reminds her that every penny raised by the Cattle Barons’ Ball and other fundraisers must be invested wisely. The high-profile social event, where tickets start at $500 a person, relies heavily on corporate sponsors to cover much of the administrative costs, she says.
“When my husband (Richard) and I write the check, we want to know it’s going to the American Cancer Society and research,” she says.
Giunta knows it’s easy for those who don’t know her to stereotype her as a South Tampa socialite. She knows better, that this mission is personal.
“I think people assume you do it to promote yourself. But I’m not,” she says. “I’m promoting the American Cancer Society. It’s about giving back to the community I love.”