AUGUSTA — A Vassalboro woman whose husband was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009 appeared in a video Thursday in which she described how programs funded by the United Way of Kennebec Valley made the worst days in her life a little easier.

Sarah Gaffney and her husband, Steve, were hiking in October 2009 on the Messalonskee Stream Trail when he started speaking gibberish, she said in the video.

“We eventually ended up in the emergency room, and he was diagnosed with a tumor the size of a lemon in his brain,” Gaffney said. “He was 27.”

Gaffney’s story was featured at the annual breakfast fundraiser at the Augusta Civic Center, where the organization also honored the Augusta and Gardiner police and fire departments. To date, the organization has raised about half of a $1.5 million goal, officials said.

After the cancer diagnosis, the couple decided they wanted to become parents, she said. A year and a half later their daughter, Zoe, was born — “the best thing we ever did with our lives,” Gaffney said.

She said one of her biggest concerns was ensuring Zoe had a sense of normalcy, and the Kennebec Valley YMCA’s Learning Center and child care services provided that.

“They really gave us a peace of mind, knowing Zoe had a safe place to be where she was completely loved, and it didn’t matter what was going on,” Gaffney said.

When Steve Gaffney began hospice care two weeks before Zoe’s third birthday, Sarah Gaffney said, she knew she wouldn’t be able to host a party for her daughter. But a former teacher of Zoe’s from the YMCA rallied other staff members, friends, people from the community and the Children’s Discovery Museum and “threw a massive third birthday party for Zoe,” she said.

“All we had to do was show up, and she had the best birthday party a little girl could have asked for,” Gaffney said. “Steve passed away a little less than two months after that, so it meant so much to us that she was able to have that while sort of the rest of her world was falling apart around her.”

Gaffney, who attended Thursday’s breakfast with Zoe, thanked other attendees for supporting the United Way of Kennebec Valley, saying her story shows that the support has a huge effect on local families’ lives.

The United Way of Kennebec Valley also honored the Augusta and Gardiner police and fire departments for their work in the communities, especially during recent fires in the two cities.

Deborah Boothby, who had lived in the 18-unit Northern Avenue apartment building in Augusta that burned down last December, described being awakened by a banging sound and seeing flames coming out of her neighbor’s door. She said she yelled to her 15-year-old son, Nathan, that they had to get out, and they jumped over a railing to escape. They both suffered second-degree burns on their faces, and her son’s leg was burned badly, Boothby said.

“But we’re lucky to be here, and we thank you guys for everything you do,” she said to the five representatives from the Augusta and Gardiner police and fire departments at the event.

The United Way of Kennebec Valley, which supports more than 50 local programs that help people in need, coordinated fundraising and relief efforts for the victims of the multi-unit apartment building fires that occurred in Augusta and Gardiner over the last year.

At the event Thursday, the organization’s officials announced they had raised $770,635 toward their usual annual goal of $1.5 million.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

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Twitter: @pdkoenig