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Sherry Higgs, founder of Drivers for Survivors, poses for a photograph in Fremont, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Higgs is CEO/executive director of the nonprofit that calls for volunteers to drive cancer patients to and from medical appointments. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

FREMONT -- Sherry Higgs wants to do more than give people with cancer an easy way to get to medical appointments.

She wants them to have companionship on the way.

A cancer survivor herself, the Fremont woman in 2011 founded Drivers for Survivors, a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients by pairing them with drivers who can take them to appointments and treatment.

Higgs has combined her tireless work ethic and boundless compassion to gather allies in the medical profession and the community. building a respected organization with a large board of directors that is filled with Tri-City-area leaders. Drivers for Survivors has 51 active volunteers, with 15 additional, part-time ones.

Sherry Higgs, founder of Drivers for Survivors, poses for a photograph in Fremont, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Higgs is CEO/executive director of
Sherry Higgs, founder of Drivers for Survivors, poses for a photograph in Fremont, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. Higgs is CEO/executive director of the nonprofit that calls for volunteers to drive cancer patients to and from medical appointments. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)

"It's about transportation with companionship," said Higgs, 48. "Most people involved have had cancer themselves or they've been touched by it because they know someone who's had it."

Margo Hood joined the organization as a volunteer driver for exactly that reason. Her father is a cancer survivor, and she remembered how vital it was for his health -- and the family's well-being -- for him to always have a ride to every treatment.

Hood praises Higgs for taking a creative approach to matching volunteers with patients who share similar interests. "Sherry likes to find out a little bit about what people like: Are they into music? Books?" said Hood, a Fremont resident. "If someone says they're a reader, then Sherry will match that person with a driver who likes books, too. It personalizes it a little bit."

Building a bond between patient and driver is a key part of the program, Hood said.

Once, Hood drove a patient to a 4:30 a.m. surgery and, as the pair talked on the way to the hospital, "we built an interesting bond," she said. As a result, Hood stayed at the hospital for 11 hours, making sure the patient was comfortable in his hospital room after the surgery.

"That's what Sherry stresses," Hood said. "The goal of all of the volunteers in their own way is to give care, compassion and comfort that the patient needs at that time."

Higgs knows all about those particular needs. Nearly four years ago, she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, the rarest and most aggressive type of breast cancer. It is now in remission. After a year of treatment and multiple surgeries involving many trips to clinics and hospitals, she saw a clear and distinct need.

"I've always been highly empathetic and sensitive, maybe overly so," said Higgs, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, Sofia. "So when I went through all of this (battling cancer), I needed to have a place to put all of that."

Higgs said that being diagnosed with cancer can rock an entire family, not just the patient.

"You might have this breadwinner in the family who is trying to keep the insurance covered, trying to keep things normal, but they have this person they love going through a very delicate time because of their illness," she said. "I saw that having as many resources as possible while going through treatments is very important. You've got people caring about other people, taking them from Point A to B in as loving a fashion as possible."

Though it has only a two-person staff, Drivers for Survivors serves 50 patients. All services are free.

One of the keys to the organization's success is its simplicity, Higgs said.

"In life, simple is better, and I would never want to convolute the program by going away from that," she said. "I've always been my happiest when life was at its simplest."

Vandana Sharma, an oncologist with practices in Fremont and other Bay Area locations, said she joined the organization's board of directors after seeing Higgs' commitment to helping make a difference in patients' lives.

"Her heartfelt passion is something that's very rare," Sharma said. "Sherry does things because it's the right thing to do. Many have the desire, but few people act on it."

Yogi Chugh, a Fremont planning commissioner and a Drivers for Survivors board member, said Higgs has earned the community's admiration by working "tirelessly" to build her organization.

"What sets Drivers for Survivors apart is how it is building support networks and companionship for patients throughout their treatments, especially for folks who are elderly or disabled or those without extended family support," Chugh said.

Higgs also volunteers in the community, frequently spending Saturdays reading to children at the Fremont Main Library. But she plans to keep her focus trained on the organization that has become her life passion.

"Drivers for Survivors is about trying to get the community involved so that everyone just does a little piece," she said. "Imagine how much good we can do if everyone just does a little bit."

Patients can request the group's services by calling its Fremont office at 510-579-0535, or by sending an email to info@driversforsurvivors.org. Often, East Bay medical professionals will refer a patient, or family or friends of someone undergoing treatment will contact the office.

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.

HOMETOWN HERO
Name: Sherry Higgs
Age: 48
Hometown: Fremont
Claim to fame: Founder of Drivers for Survivors (http://driversforsurvivors.org), a nonprofit organization that provides supportive companionship and free transportation to medical appointments for cancer patients in southern Alameda County.
Quote: "In life, simple is better, and I would never want to convolute the program by going away from that. I've always been my happiest when life was at its simplest."
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