Friday, February 11, 2011

Bead by Bead, WC's First Lady Puts Her World's Record to Good Use to Fight Breast Cancer

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Elisabeth Reiss set out to break a world record when she single-handedly strung 40,000 pink beads—each bead representing one of the 40,000 American lives lost each year to breast cancer—into one continuous strand. She finished the project in the fall of 2009 and learned this past November that she had, indeed, earned recognition from the Guinness World Records organization.
Now that she has the world’s attention, the First Lady of Washington College wants to put those 40,000 beads to good use, raising funds for breast cancer research and education. Her goal: to raise at least $40,000 for the Susan G. Komen Foundation by selling sponsorships for every bead. Reiss has created a Web site for the fundraiser,, where anyone who donates at least $1 can dedicate a bead to a friend or family member affected by the disease.
Reiss, who became First Lady of the College on July 1, 2010, became motivated to advocate for breast-cancer causes soon after marrying Mitchell Reiss and moving to the United States from her native England. Her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law are among the many women she would watch battle breast cancer. Reiss has participated in a number of breast-cancer related fundraisers over the years, especially in Williamsburg, where the family lived for 11 years while Mitchell taught law and diplomacy at the College of William & Mary.
But the idea of doing something on her own came while she was volunteering as a tutor in the Rita Walsh Literacy Center in Williamsburg. One day she found herself trying to persuade a young man who was just learning how to read that he could make a big difference in younger students’ lives by, in turn, helping them learn to read. “He was making all these unrealistic, impossible plans for himself, and I was trying to convince him that sometimes doing one very simple thing could make a big difference,” she explains.
Soon afterward, she decided to take her own advice when it came to breast health. “I read in the Guinness Book of World Records about a young girl in England who had set a record by stringing what was then the world’s longest strand of beads. And I thought, now that’s a simple thing that I could do—I could string beads. And I could break the record for beading in a way that called attention to the staggering number of people the disease claims each year.”
The task took approximately 400 hours, during which the Reiss dining room and front parlor became her beading workshop. She refused the many offers of help from family and friends. “I wanted to make sure that I met the Guinness standards by doing all the work myself,” she explains.
The end result, officially unveiled and notarized in October of 2009, stretched 1,048 feet, greater than the length of three football fields. With help from her husband and members of the Phi Mu sorority at William & Mary, Reiss laid out the strand in a continuous pattern on the floor of a meeting room on that campus. “It really had an impact on people when they realized that each of those beads represented a life,” she says.
Now she hopes her fundraising efforts will make a significant difference in the Komen Foundation’s work to eradicate breast cancer. And in the meantime, she’s brainstorming about what to do with that 1,048-foot colossus of pink beads. First, she wants to create an easy way to transport it without tangling or breaking so it can be displayed at events such as Race for the Cure and Relay for Life. She might eventually shape it into a large halter bra, an outsize symbol of the need to get mammograms, to do breast self-exams, to fund research for a cure.
An oversized pink-beaded brassiere? Sounds like another one for the record books.
(To learn more about the Buy a Bead project, visit the Web site ( or email your questions to To contribute, send a check, along with the name of the cancer survivor or victim you wish to honor, to Buy A Bead, P.O. Box 771, Chestertown, MD, 21620. )
Photos: Top, Elisabeth with her record-breaking strand of 40,000 beads, representing the lives lost to breast cancer each year in the United States. Middle, Daughter Michael and husband Mitchell were on hand to help Elisabeth Reiss tie off her 1,048 foot-strand the day her feat was officially measured and notarized for submission to the Guinness World Records. Bottom: Friends in Williamsburg helped Elisabeth lay out the immense strand of pink on the floor of a conference room.

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