Neighbor Brigade, the organization Pam Washek founded, was the simplest of ideas, and it emerged from among the most trying of circumstances.
“When I had cancer in 2002, a friend had it at the same time,” she told the Globe in January. “Our friends came together and helped us through meal chains, giving our kids rides, house cleaning, walking the dogs. We were very well taken care of. When I was done with treatment, this light bulb came on that said, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without this. Maybe we should keep it going for other people.’ ”
She did, first launching the Wayland Angels Food Network with her friend Jean Seiden, with whom she rode bicycles to cancer treatment after they were diagnosed weeks apart. In 2010, a few years after Seiden died, Mrs. Washek turned the network into Neighbor Brigade, which is now at work in more in than two dozen communities with nearly 3,400 volunteers. As for those dinners friends once brought to her house, according to the group’s website, www.neighborbrigade.org, Neighbor Brigade is approaching 5,000 meals served.
“People want to help people,” she told the Globe, “and this is just such a simple way to make that happen.”
Mrs. Washek, who started riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge to raise money for cancer research before her own diagnosis and even scheduled surgery around the event so she could keep participating, died Sunday in her Wayland home. She was 47 and had served as executive director of Neighbor Brigade.
She was being treated for cancer when Jaqui Brisson of Wayland first arrived in her kitchen with a meal for the family. Their roles reversed a few years later when Brisson was diagnosed with cancer, and Mrs. Washek’s organization helped Brisson.
“This organization just kind of landed on my doorstep and made my sense of people caring bigger than life,” Brisson said. “The word cancer shakes everybody’s boat. Your family’s in shock. You’re in shock. It means so much that you’re being helped up by other people so you don’t completely fall apart.”
Mrs. Washek, Brisson said, “also came to visit me during my time of recovery. She had a very easy style, a very peaceful way. She was very present, very angelic in some ways because she was so petite and her words were so helpful.”
In 2004, about two years after starting the first of her two organizations, Mrs. Washek explained why it is important for neighbors to help neighbors in times of need.
“Not everyone has lots of friends and family nearby,” she told the Globe, and besides, “you can exhaust family and friends.”
Providing an opportunity to volunteer “allows everyone to rise to a higher level,” Seiden told the Globe in 2004. “And they all rise.”
Anne Becker, who leads the Wayland chapter of Neighbor Brigade, sent an e-mail to the town’s many volunteers when Mrs. Washek’s health was declining, and included an e-mail sent by another volunteer.
“She is truly the closest thing to God that I have met on this earth,” the volunteer wrote. “I was blessed to spend some time with her last week — I will never forget our conversation and will forever cherish our connection. Sound familiar? I’m one of the million people Pam touched in such a profound way.”
Born in Canton, Ohio, Pamela Vasilike Manikas was the youngest of four children, and the second of the twin daughters born to the Rev. Nicholas C. Manikas and the former Effie Conides. When she was 10, the family moved to Wayland.
She started dating Kevin Washek in 1982, during the summer after her junior year at Wayland High School.
“She was a visionary, a planner even then,” he recalled. “Sitting on the hood of a car, staring at the stars late at night, she laid it out: This is what it’s like to be married, to have kids. I hitched my wagon to her and she was just amazing.”
They married in 1988 and had three daughters. Ainsley is now 21, Kathryn is 20, and Jessica is 14.
Mrs. Washek was raising her daughters when she was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma in her left shoulder. She faced chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, which was particularly intrusive because she was left-handed and had to relearn to perform tasks with her right hand.
“Cancer scares us, as we fear what it will take away,” she told Synergy, a publication of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, in 2009. “I managed to focus on what this disease brought my way, and somehow or other, I think I actually came out of this thing stronger!”
Part of what cancer brought Mrs. Washek was the inspiration to found her organizations.
“She was a very reserved, humble woman with an immense drive,” said her twin, Mary Leach of Northborough. “She was very driven to reach out and help other people. It wasn’t about her, it was about everybody else. Whatever she could do to gently, gracefully contribute to other people’s lives, she would do.”
Cancer also brought Mrs. Washek closer to her faith.
“Particularly in the last 10 years, when she got cancer, the faith that she had just grew by leaps and bounds,” said her father, who for many years was pastor of St. Demetrios Church in Weston and now lives with his wife in Hyannis. “To me, she was my little hero, deeply spiritual in many ways. I have so much to learn from her.”
Mrs. Washek “basically had such contentment in her own life,” her husband said. “I think she wanted to do whatever she could do to allow other people to know that true, true contentment. She was just happy, and her own human suffering, her own pain, didn’t affect that.”
In addition to her husband, daughters, parents, and twin sister, Mrs. Washek leaves a brother, Paul Manikas of Cotuit, and a sister, Joanna Manikas of Winchester.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Demetrios Church in Weston. Burial will be in the family lot in Lakeview Cemetery in Wayland.
“She directed her mission forward, but never once turned the attention to herself,” Becker said. “She had a quiet strength. Being with her made you feel like you were part of something special. She believed in everyone around her.”
Mrs. Washek also believed that someday the organization she created would stretch far beyond Greater Boston.
“My vision is to have a Neighbor Brigade in every neighborhood across the country,” she told the Globe in 2010. “Who wouldn’t want to live in a community like that?”