For nearly 30 years, William “Billy” Begal has been a motivating force behind the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, a stem cell and bone marrow registry that cures blood cancer and inherited immune disorders through bone marrow donation.
Since selling his disaster restoration business, Begal, 53, devotes his time to volunteering for nonprofits. He is president and chairman emeritus of Gift of Life. Begal and his wife of almost six years, Kira Epstein Begal, 41, a real estate agent, have encouraged 4,000 people to join the registry by completing a cheek swab kit.
The Northwest Washington couple are also active with Adas Israel Congregation and the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital. They have three children.
How did you come to be involved with bone marrow donor registration?
Billy: In 1994, I went to Minsk, Belarus, to help an acquaintance, Jay Feinberg, find a bone marrow donor [in his Jewish ancestral home] to cure his leukemia. He eventually found a match. He is alive and well post-transplant and he has devoted his life to helping people. A few years prior in Washington, D.C., a young woman, Allison Atlas, needed a bone marrow donor and I volunteered to have my blood drawn for that and just got involved on a grass-roots level. A suitable donor could not be found for her and she died.
What difference have you and others made in expanding the registry?
Kira: We have a family and friends donor circle and we ask for no gifts at weddings, birthdays, just joining a registry through a cheek swab or making a financial contribution. It’s an easy way to help and people feel good about it because if you get into the registry and get called it only takes a couple of hours to donate your bone marrow and potentially save a life. I like the idea of having a charity that is not about just giving money and wondering what it’s helping.
Billy: There are 400,000 people in the Gift of Life Marrow Registry. When Jay was searching for his match in the mid-’90s, he had less than a 10 percent chance of finding one. If you are of Eastern European Jewish descent today, your chance of finding a match is greater than 75 percent.
Tell us about your unusual wedding.
Billy: We didn’t have any wedding gifts. Our wedding registry was a bone marrow registry. We had people that were literally swabbing at our wedding. Many were already on the registry and donated money to Gift of Life to sponsor the $60 cost of lab testing each swab kit.
Billy chairs bereavement at Adas Israel and is on the board of the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School. How do your Jewish values inform what the two of you do for the community?
Kira: Through my work as a real estate agent, I just feel like I’m connected to all these communities. When there’s a referral, I send a thank you note and ask them what charity I can make a donation to. That’s another way to donate to a variety of Jewish charities.”
Billy: It’s a symbiotic relationship. What we practice in our home is what we do out in the world. So we teach our children to be kind and to help other people.
For more information on the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, go to giftoflife.org. ■
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.