Del Mar philanthropist and cancer survivor seeking volunteers, donations to make prom special for teens in need
By Marlena Chavira-Medford
Seated at a café patio on Camino Del Mar in Del Mar, Dee Dee Marquette holds a stuffed three-ring binder. It’s filled with letters and newspaper clippings that chronicle her life, a story that reads more like a page out of movie script.
Marquette is, in a word, extraordinary. To say she’s worn many hats would be an understatement. She’s been a successful business owner, writer, credit counselor, private investigator, diplomat, motivational speaker, legal counsel, consumer advocate, jewelry designer, and talent scout. In addition to living with multiple sclerosis, she has also survived five types of cancer.
“No matter what I’ve been doing, or what I’ve been facing, my philosophy in life has always been to focus on helping other people,” she said. “If we focus on ourselves, we ultimately dwell on our ourselves. But when you learn to fight for others, there’s strength in that. Helping other people has always been my passion.”
Most recently, that passion has been creating storybook-like prom nights for teenage girls facing financial hardships. The mission first pulled at Marquette’s heart a few years ago when she was volunteering as legal counsel for Torrey Pines High School, where her son was a student. She soon realized that even in a seemingly well-to-do area, many families did not have expendable dollars for prom, which Marquette said “these days can be like paying for a mini-wedding.” So, she got to work finding donated gowns, and negotiating with local business owners to get them free or discounted spa services, limousine rides, photography, and meals.
It’s been five years, and though her son has since graduated, Marquette is still helping teenage girls— and in fact, she has broadened her scope to include a few neighboring areas. She said with the economy taking a nosedive, the need has only grown. Many families may not be near the poverty line, but times are tough nonetheless, so Marquette makes it clear that she’s open to helping anyone, whatever their financial situation.
“I promise each of these girls that I will cover everything, from head to toe,” Marquette said, even if that means she has to come out-of-pocket herself. And when these girls show up for their day of pampering, she sees to it that each girl is treated with the same dignity as other clients would be. “This is their day. I want to make a girl’s dreams come true. If that means I have to go the extra mile, then OK.”
Marquette is able to help about 40 girls a year, but with medical bills racking up due to her cancer treatments, her efforts are limited. She is now looking to the community in hopes of finding donated gowns, shoes, jewelry, or professionals who are willing to offer their prom-related services, including makeup, hair, nails, facials, photography, videography, limo rides and meals. She is also hoping to expand the operation to include teenage boys in need, so tuxedo donations or discounts on tuxedo rentals are also welcome.
The ultimate goal, she said, is to launch other operations like this around Southern California, and then the nation. Marquette said that one day, she would like to be able to help thousands of teenagers across the country.
“I want to have a warehouse full of donated gowns where girls can come find the perfect one — that’s my dream.”
And until her own dream comes true, she’s staying busy making dreams come true for the girls she helps. The work is worth it all, she said, once prom night finally rolls around.
“I never had a daughter, so I get to be Mom for a night. When I see the joy in their face, and I get those hugs, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Some of those hugs, she said, stay with her for years. There was one such hug that she said she’ll never forget. Every Christmas, Marquette used to organize a giant toy drive for the kids at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, where she owned several high-end day spas. She’d ride a horse down Broadway which, as she recalls, “always somehow seemed to be in the middle of a blizzard,” and deliver the toys with Santa in tow. It was on one such delivery that she met a 2-year-old boy who was so ill he had been confined to a respiratory tent.
“And when Santa leaned in and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, that little boy said he wanted a hug,” Marquette said, fighting back tears at the memory. “I’m happy to say he got that hug.”
It is pivotal moments like those that keep Marquette wanting to help, even when it’s not-so-easy. Case in point: In 1989, Marquette was pregnant with her only son when she began seriously hemorrhaging. Doctors later learned that though her placenta had separated nearly a month before her delivery date, miraculously the baby was born healthy.
“He’s my miracle baby,” Marquette said beaming. But her elation was followed with a devastating blow. Just months after giving birth, Marquette was diagnosed with late-term uterine cancer and given one year to live. Four months into her treatment, doctors told her she had six weeks to live.
It was around this time she received word that People to People had selected her as citizen ambassador to travel to Poland and the then-Soviet Union. At that moment, many people would have likely declined the offer, and had she made that choice, it’s likely nobody would have questioned it. But Marquette took a slant that is part of what makes her so very remarkable.
“I knew at that moment more than ever how short life can be. I knew at that moment more than ever that life, as short as it is, is about helping other people. I also knew that as long as I was helping other people, as long as I was needed somewhere, as long as I was reaching out to others, then I had a reason to live.”
And so she went overseas, even suffering a minor heart attack during her travels due to her fragile state, believing that an opportunity to help someone else would present itself, and it did. While Marquette was at a restaurant in Russia she met a young woman who sparked up a conversation. When Marquette told her she was an American, the woman burst into tears, revealing that she had dreams of going to America but was put into prostitution by her mother when she was very young and was now trapped there.
“My heart just broke. Here I was full of cancer, but I was alive and I was free. And here she was, young, beautiful, healthy — but she was dead inside and trapped. At that moment, I actually felt lucky.”
That moment would prove to have a ripple effect. After returning to the U.S., Marquette got to work finding a way to help women like the one she’d met in the bathroom. Through the talent agency she ran at the time, she was able to work out a deal that allowed some of these women to come to the U.S.
Marquette is not-so-surprisingly also involved with many other causes, some through large organized non-profits and some just random acts of kindness she takes on herself, like how she frequently feeds the homeless. She even continues to help people through her nine-to-five as a credit educator, something that won her accolades in 2002 when the La Jolla Light named her “Financial Planner of the Year,” and in 2004 when the San Diego Reader named her its “Best Buy” for consumer education.
Though Marquette has taken on some pretty major philanthropic endeavors, she said the point is quality, not quantity.
“It starts with one person — just help one person. You don’t have to change the world at once,” she said. “I know people may doubt this, but every single day of my life, I try to do something for someone else.”
It’s a philosophy she said has helped her weather some stormy days, which has included a battle with uterine cancer, breast cancer, and three types of skin cancer.
“Whether I go today or at 100 years old, I know I made a difference in someone’s life. That’s what it’s all about.”
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