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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation of the Rio Grande Valley
Jacqueline Beretta

January, 2006

The Issue: Great numbers of children from South Texas suffered from cancer and blood diseases and had to travel great distances to San Antonio or Houston for their care. Families, especially low income families, were torn apart and displaced trying desperately to help their children while at the same time maintain their jobs and lives in their communities.

The Answer: The establishment of The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation which exists to provide resources for cancer treatment, research and education in South Texas and The Rio Grande Valley.

Vannie E. Cook Jr. – Generous, Modest & Humble

Mr. Vannie E. Cook Jr. grew up in McAllen, Texas and was a prominent businessman and rancher who owned the Coca Cola Bottling Company. Mr. Cook loved the outdoor life and was devoted to game and nature conservation. He was extremely active in the community, especially the organization that once was the Rio Grande Valley Radiation and Cancer Treatment Center, and eventually evolved into the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation. He was married to Carolyn Vance and had four children. His daughter, Kathy Collins, lives in McAllen and serves on the board of the Foundation.

A kind man with a philanthropic spirit, Mr. Cook would most certainly be proud of the children’s oncology and hematology clinic, which bears his name.

The History of the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation

The Vannie E. Cook Jr. Foundation was issued a Certificate of Incorporation on June 12, 1972. For the next five years members of the board of the Foundation worked diligently to organize and build the Rio Grande Cancer Treatment Center. H.D. Gilliam, M.D., Francisco I. Pena, M.D., Donald D. Walker, M.D., Ken W. Fesler, M.D., and Jesus Rodriguez-Aguero, M.D. worked tirelessly to design and build a cancer treatment center that would serve cancer patients of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Northern Mexico. They dreamed of creating a community facility that would provide radiation treatment to all persons with cancer, regardless of their financial status, race, religion, sex or national origin. They also hoped to eliminate the need for patients to travel long distances to large cities that had good facilities.

On April 27, 1977 the Rio Grande Cancer Treatment Center opened the doors to a $1.5 million facility was made possible by the Rio Grande Radiation Treatment and Cancer Research Foundation, Inc. Much of the funding was secured from private philanthropists and the remainder from Federal Hill-Burton Funds.


When originally established, the Center operated as an extension of the University of Texas System Cancer Center’s M.D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute in Houston. During this time the Foundation was the recipient of all donations and memorials. On September 1, 1981, the Center became an independent facility while still maintaining affiliation agreements with MDAH in the areas of Continuing Medical Education, Physics, Nursing and Laboratory.

The Foundation owns the Center’s building (and equipment when patients were being treated) which is leased to the Center. The Center’s operating expenses are derived from patient revenues. Indigent patients are treated through the Hill- Burton Program or from funds set aside for this purpose, usually derived from special fundraising activities.

In 1978 the Center added a chemotherapy department to the scope of its services.

Throughout the Center’s years of operation, it honored its commitment to serve all Cancer patients referred to the facility. Each year an average of 650 new patients were registered, with an average of 14,000 patient visits per year.

On June 2, 1989 the Center moved into a new location adjacent to HCA Rio Grande Regional Hospital and officially became the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Center. Both HCA Rio Grande Regional Hospital and McAllen Medical Center offered land for the Center’s relocation. The Foundation felt that the size and location of the land offered by HCA Rio Grande Regional better served the purposes of the Center.

On March 6, 1995, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Center was dissolved and all its assets were transferred to the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation.

The Baylor College of Medicine, the Texas Children’s Hospital and the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation Join Forces to Help the Youth of South Texas

The latest initiative of the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation, benefits the children of South Texas through collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. This partnership, which was formalized in 2000, resulted in the creation of a comprehensive pediatric cancer and hematology clinic in McAllen, designed to provide cancer care for the children of South Texas.

Now in it’s fifth year of operation and after treating more than 2,500 patients, the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children’s Cancer and Hematology Clinic is expanding to meet the growing demand for services and is seeking community funds to ensure that we can do so. To better serve the needs of our growing patient population, of which approximately 70% reside in McAllen and its surrounding communities.

Providing Advanced Technology

According to Laura Ilgun, Director, Development and Public Relations, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children's Cancer and Hematology Clinic and Executive Director, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation, “Our ability to care for children with cancer is enhanced by an innovative telemedicine link between the clinic in McAllen and the Texas Children’s Cancer Center that allows real-time contact with colleagues in Houston, thereby facilitating support and second opinions. This video link also provides an opportunity for physicians to share information, have in-depth case discussions, and collaborate on clinical research. Furthermore, the link allows local healthcare professionals to receive continuing education opportunities through a monthly series of course offerings and weekly Pediatric Grand Rounds.”

Services provided at the Clinic also include cancer genetics counseling to individuals and families of South Texas who are concerned about their risk of cancer. This important service was not available previously. Several years ago, we also established a Long Term Survivor Clinic so that our caregivers could provide follow-up care to children and young adults who have survived their illness.

And, in collaboration with the Childhood Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Center, which is a joint program of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Cancer Center and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, we are developing a research and education component that is designed to improve our understanding of the causes of childhood cancer in South Texas and to explore prevention strategies. This research will assess disease outcomes, evaluate environmental and genetic factors, provide longitudinal family health surveys, develop a geographic information systems laboratory, and develop future interventions.”


Covering the cost of care and treatment for low in-come and un-insured patients. Last year, the Clinic wrote off over $1M dollars in unreimbursed charges.

Grants and donations and a commitment that no child will go without treatment, regardless of ability to pay.

What advice would the Clinic offer other organizations going through similar situations? According to Laura Ilgun, Director, Development and Public Relations, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children's Cancer and Hematology Clinic
and Executive Director, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation,

First of all, make sure that you remain true to your mission, provide care of the highest quality and hire talented staff.

And even though you are a non-profit organization, when it comes to running the organization, operate as if is not. You should aim to be fiscally sound.

Furthermore, get your board committed to helping identify donors and garner support.

Work with the media as much as possible to create awareness of the work you are doing and ask them to help you inform the public about the support that you need.

Write the best proposals that you can and consistently follow-up and be accountable to your donors.

Ilgun added that their community has consistently supported the foundation, enabling their assets to grow. These increasing funds have “enabled the Foundation to pursue its efforts to help subsidize cancer treatment for the medically indigent.”

Support comes from three major areas: Board cultivation and contacts via personal relationships and essential follow-up communication, government grants (HRSA) and Community Development Block Grants, and an annual campaign.

There are two campaigns a year that are conducted to raise funds for general operations. The Annual fund profiles a patient, by telling a story that emotionally compels a donor to respond in a way that will help others….short and yet beautiful with photographs to creatively make a connection between donor and patient.

Major Supporters and Recent Gifts

Michael K. McCoy, Senior Program Officer of the Meadows Foundation said, "The Meadows hallmark is to bring people together to holistically address a problem. The foundation was alarmed at the high rate of underserved children with cancer there were in South Texas and appalled at the long distance they had to travel to receive care. We were also very impressed with the fact that the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children’s Cancer and Hematology Clinic was a joint venture of the Vannie E. Cook Cancer Foundation, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston."

To see a list of recent donors, please visit our Members Only pages.


The Junior League of McAllen supports the Clinic with placement volunteers. According to the Junior League of McAllen, the group also supports “The Arts in Medicine program at the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children's Cancer & Hematology Clinic is a project of the Junior League of McAllen. Volunteers provide an avenue for the children to express themselves and help the treatment time pass a little quicker. They organize art supplies, choose age appropriate art projects for patients and their siblings, and work one-on-one with the young patients on arts and crafts - both in the waiting area and during lengthy treatments. Volunteers also assist the children with completing artwork for the “Making a Mark” competition each year.”

Measuring Results

Laura Ilgun spoke of the importance of measurement for both fundraising and successful patient servicing. To make sure they are delivering successful patient services, the Clinic has converted to electronic patient records.

Processes are currently being put into place using Razor’s Edge for fundraising. Comparing donation totals from year to year, giving histories, and analyzing demographics is critical for success. The information gleaned form record keeping is also used for mailings and newsletters.

Many thanks to Laura Martinez Ilgun, Director, Development and Public Relations, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children's Cancer and Hematology Clinic
and Executive Director, Vannie E. Cook Jr. Cancer Foundation, for the great amount of time given to us to present this amazing story. To learn more please visit today and very soon you will be able to visit


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