WORDEN -- If you think your office is loaded with memorabilia, you should see Iona Stookey's. Instead of black and red school colors, you’d think Huntley Project had switched to pink.
And there’s a story behind every pink detail in the head volleyball coach’s volleyball office.
“This over here was kind of cool, this pink ribbon over here," Stookey said, pointing out a colorful memento on the wall. "A teacher that had retired made that for me, praying for me when I was initially diagnosed.”
The diagnosis was nine years ago. From out of nowhere, breast cancer.
“It was totally shocking, then you had to live with it and deal with it and go through all the chemo and radiation," Stookey recalled. "It was a tough time in my life. And then teaching and coaching. The one thing I will say is, in the spring I had to miss a couple weeks of school. But I didn’t miss one day of coaching in the fall, even through my radiation treatment.”
Turning her attention to a giant poster taped to the corner above her desk, Stookey continued, “This here was probably one of my most heartfelt. The seniors made it that year. I guess the quote on there (hits me), ‘Whoever said that winning isn’t everything obviously never had to fight cancer.'”
In a twist of fate, after her diagnosis Stookey instantly heard from someone who did fight cancer, and had beaten it: fellow volleyball coach Vicki Carle, whose Billings Skyview players had launched the original Pack the Place in Pink effort to help with her diagnosis a few years earlier. Now great friends, Carle and Stookey didn’t know each other real well then.
“I just had this compelling feeling that I had to go to her," Carle recalled to MTN Sports. "We didn’t have a checkbook, we didn’t have anything set up. That was the very beginning.”
Stookey was one of the first recipients from an organization that’s now supported breast cancer patients across Montana with more than $500,000.
“I know that she had heard from somebody and, honestly, she was the first one there," said Stookey. "She got a hold of me and came out. My husband, daughter and I were sitting there and it was like we had this connection because we were both in it together. It was actually, probably one of the most awesome things I went through.”
Unfortunately, she also went through chemo treatments.
“I lost all my hair," Stookey recalled with a laugh. "I had a wig at the state tournament that year. I still look at that picture. We won state that year. It just brings back memories, some are bitter, but most of them for me are, ‘You know, I made it, it was a tough fight but we won.' I won on all aspects of it. But no, I wore a wig at that state tournament.”
And she kicked into gear Huntley Project’s own Pack the Place in Pink Night, where the Red Devils continue to go big.
“A couple years before that, when Vicki first started it, I went to a couple games and was thinking, ‘Well, one, I love pink. And, two, I think we could do this,'" Stookey said.
Stookey said she was shooting for a launch in fall of 2011. But, both ironically and stunningly, she was hit with cancer a few months before her target date.
“It was like a no-brainer, we’re going with it," Stookey said, never deterred. "And it’s been a hit ever since.”
A lot of people aren’t comfortable holding on to scary and debilitating memories of cancer treatment. But listening to Stookey describe another sentimental wall decoration -- a pink rodeo rope constructed in the shapes of both a cross and a breast cancer awareness ribbon -- it's easy to understand why she cherishes most of hers.
“He is kind of a cowboy, rodeo guy," Stookey said of the grantor. "Jay Selman is his name and when I got diagnosed he was one of the first ones I told. I remember when I got back, he goes, ‘I like it better when you’re here.’ And we still work together, we teach high school P.E. together.
“What I try to do with my kids is just (let them know) how important life is and not to take the little things for granted. Because after you go through cancer, every day is a gift. Every day is a gift.”