Mary Dungans

Hope floats

Mary Dungans (center), who joined Mana‘olana Pink Paddlers seven years ago, helped build the nonprofit organization that supports cancer survivors and their supporters that began in 2006. She transformed the fledgling organization into a bona fide outrigger canoe club that has helped survivors regain their strength and confidence through paddling. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Mary Dungans (center), who joined Mana‘olana Pink Paddlers seven years ago, helped build the nonprofit organization that supports cancer survivors and their supporters that began in 2006. She transformed the fledgling organization into a bona fide outrigger canoe club that has helped survivors regain their strength and confidence through paddling. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For The Maui News

All it took was one cup of coffee.

On a bright October morning seven years ago, Mary Dungans was lugging an outrigger canoe ashore at Sugar Beach in north Kihei when she spotted a group of women in matching pink shirts sipping coffee at a nearby picnic table. One of the pink-clad women noticed Dungans observing them and offered her a cup. She accepted, and before long, they were swapping life stories.

“And that’s how I became a Pink Paddler,” she said.

Earlier that year, Dungans and her husband handed the reins of their outdoor adventure and ecotour company to their daughter. Running a business had kept Dungans tethered to a computer during the day, so when she heard a deejay on Mana’o Radio mention outrigger paddling at north Kihei’s Maui Canoe Club, she was determined to try it.

Dungans quickly fell in love with the sport and soon became a regular at the club on Monday and Wednesday mornings. But on a Tuesday in October, she decided to change her schedule. That’s when she met the Mana’olana (the Hawaiian word for “hope”) Pink Paddlers.

In 2006, six breast cancer survivors — snowbirds from Canada and the Midwestern U.S. — banded together to replicate Canada’s “Abreast in a Boat” program, which raises breast cancer awareness and improves post-treatment quality of life for survivors through dragon boat paddling. But instead of dragon boats, the women opted to paddle outrigger canoes, which were provided by Maui Canoe Club. Four years later, as more survivors and their supporters began to take part in the group’s Tuesday and Thursday morning paddles, the women turned their passion project into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization so they could purchase a boat of their own.

When Dungans came on board that winter, she was asked to join the newly minted nonprofit’s board of directors. Six months later, after taking note of her business savvy (not to mention her boundless optimism and enthusiasm), Dungans’ fellow board members urged her to take on the role of board president.

In the years that followed, she transformed the fledgling organization into a bona fide outrigger canoe club that has helped cancer survivors regain their strength and confidence through paddling. It also has helped those who are coping with loss or supporting a loved one with cancer.

“I lost both of my parents to cancer,” Dungans said. “I know firsthand that there’s more to Mana’olana than paddling — it’s a way to set your spirit free. That’s something I see every day.”

Since Dungans took the helm in 2011, Mana’olana Pink Paddlers has flourished. Among other things, she’s written hundreds of calendar listings, press releases, donation request letters and thank-you cards; maintained the club’s website and social media sites; addressed donor groups, high school assemblies and Kiwanis and Rotary club meetings; planned nonpaddling-related activities and excursions for members; organized Mana’olana’s twice-monthly “Ashes to the Sea” ceremonies; and orchestrated a partnership with the Pacific Cancer Foundation. And on top of that, she’s also the club’s cheerleader.

“I feel like that’s my most important role,” she said.

Now 124 members and six pink double-hull canoes strong (a seventh single-hull canoe will soon join the fleet), Mana’olana has grown to include women and men of varying ages whose lives have been touched by any type of cancer. Last year, nearly 2,800 people — members and nonmembers — paddled with the club.

“They are cancer survivors, caregivers and supporters,” Dungans explained.

When it comes to membership, there’s only one steadfast rule. “You must have a giving spirit,” she said.

And safety is a non-negotiable priority. “I’m a mother hen,” Dungans laughed. “I always do what’s best for the group. That means I do everything in my power to make sure that everyone is safe, happy and in their comfort zone.”

In fact, in this recreational-only club, there are no stopwatches or bullhorns; there are only words of encouragement, laughter and whale songs (during whale season, the group often paddles out with a hydrophone and speaker). And there’s still plenty of coffee and conversation.

“That hasn’t changed,” Dungans said. “The camaraderie is really what makes this organization so special.”

Clearly, retirement isn’t in the cards for Dungans, who devotes several hours to Mana’olana each day. But she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When someone comes to paddle with us for the first time, there’s often a sadness that you can see,” she said. “But once they are out on the water, you can see that sadness lift.

“It’s medicine for the soul.”

Mana’olana is a sister club to Maui Canoe Club; paddlers have dual membership. Training is available to new Mana’olana members and paddles and life vests (if needed) are provided. To learn more about Mana’olana Pink Paddlers or to inquire about membership or donor opportunities, visit www.mauipinks.org or email manaolanapinkpaddlers@gmail.com.

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