By Kellie Goodman Shaffer
Brandi Hershey prides herself on sending out the earliest cards of the holiday season. Mailed on Thanksgiving weekend, the Hershey family Christmas card is always the first one in her friends’ mailboxes, their smiles ushering in the season with special greetings to loved ones. It’s a tradition she’s had for years: but now Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as every birthday, and every precious moment in between mean more. This busy mom, wife, attorney and breast cancer survivor has learned to appreciate life’s blessings, large and small.
“So now on a fairly regular basis I stop, or choose to slow down and just take life in,” she says.
A Bedford County native, Brandi Hershey grew up in the Chestnut Ridge School District, the daughter of hard working parents, but a father, who, like many Vietnam Veterans, struggled with alcoholism. It was not always easy, but she credits her mother with setting an example of work ethic and putting family first.
When it came time to consider a career path, Brandi chose a field that would provide her with independence. But little did she know how much she would come to love the law.
“I had been an attorney for about a year,” Hershey said, “Working in general practice for a small law firm (in Central Pennsylvania), and I realized that it was important to feel good about the work I was doing, and for that work to benefit the community.”
That epiphany led to Hershey becoming a prosecutor. She represented the community in both the Blair County and Bedford County District Attorneys’ offices, advocating for the rights of crime victims. She also served as a Special Deputy Attorney General for Pennsylvania and in the Governor’s Office of General Counsel.
“One of my early mentors, Barbara Baxter, who worked extensively with Children and Youth Services, gave me some very wise advice,” she said. “You will never go wrong if you remember to be on the side of the angels (children).”
Prosecuting the most serious of cases was both challenging and rewarding, especially when dealing with child victims and victims’ families.
“People can be very evil, and do evil things to each other,” said Hershey. “And that is upsetting as a prosecutor. You feel good about your job when you get a guilty verdict and represent a victim well, but that doesn’t change the life of the family left behind. They still have that void. And it’s sad to see kids thrust into adult roles, which is an epidemic.”
With more than a decade of experience as a proven prosecutor, and the mother of two young children, Hershey felt ready to expand her legal horizons. She embarked on a civil career, hanging her own shingle in Bedford, committed to making a further impact on her community.
“My law practice has given me the ability to focus on and devote my energy to those things that I believe are important,” she said. “It’s important to me to set a good example for my children. My kids can’t fully comprehend what I do, but they understand that I try to help people.”
That’s exactly how Brandi’s children, Alexis (10) and David (8) describe their mother’s job, saying that she helps people with their problems. But they also count kindness among her most important lessons.
“Every day after school she asks us what we did that was kind for someone else,” said David.
Brandi lived those words outside of the office as well, taking on servant leadership roles in local organizations. The past-president of the Bedford County Bar Association serves on the board of directors for the Bedford County Development Association and Personal Solutions, Inc.; she’s also served as a Trustee on the Bedford Heritage Trust and a board member for Camp Cadet of Bedford County, as well as being active in Bedford Sunrise Rotary and an associate member of the Bedford Lions Club.
With a beautiful family, successful law practice and active volunteer schedule, Hershey seemed to have it all. And then came the news that shook her to the core: a diagnosis of breast cancer just before Christmas of 2015. The months that followed were focused on fighting for her life: six months of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, and all of the accompanying side effects and challenges; the treatments continued through September of 2016.
“My husband Brad did things for me no one should have to do,” said Brandi. “He was so strong for me – he was a pillar of support for my family. When you’re young and you take those marriage vows: better or worse, in sickness and health, you don’t really appreciate what that means. I have such respect for him. He lives a life of service.”
“I was more impressed with her and her strength,” said Brad, a Pennsylvania State Police Lieutenant, Criminal Investigations Section Commander of Troop G. “She was still very active while she was taking treatments in the family and with her business. While dealing with the illness she still operated at a high level, which was just amazing.”
In spite of the very serious diagnosis, Brandi faced the disease with courage and even humor, sharing updates on social media with smiles and grace, knowing that her children were always watching.
“She’s really tough,” said her daughter Alexis, a fifth grader at Bedford Elementary. “She survived breast cancer. She beat it. She’s so strong.”
As Brandi worked to make the cancer path easier on her friends and loved ones, the community rallied behind the Hershey family in ways she could never have imagined.
“I think back to when I was younger and trying to put myself on an independent path,” said Brandi, “And then realizing that to have a rewarding life you have to have people who you can count on. The way the community helped me, helped my children, I was truly, truly blessed.”
Now, nearly three years removed from that cancer diagnosis, this survivor is helping others facing breast cancer. Attorney Hershey was instrumental in forming the Bedford County Pink Ribbon Fund through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, serving as the survivor chair and spokesperson for the inaugural Pink Ribbon Walk/Run in 2017. She’s also taken on additional responsibility as chair of the allocation committee.
“When we asked her to speak on behalf of our committee, she said, I’m on it. She was pleased to be asked,” recalls Dr. Katherine Erlichman, Pink Ribbon Fund Chair, and two-time breast cancer survivor herself. “As the leader of our allocation committee she’s very wise, very fair, and very much a team player; and she knows what they’re going through – she met breast cancer head-on. She’s made of steel.”
“When she led the walk she let me hold the sign,” said her son David, now in third grade. “I told one of my friends that and they said your Mom must be really cool. I said she’s really nice, too.”
Brandi courageously and publicly shares the story of her breast cancer journey, raising awareness and funds to help others in the Bedford County region; she also speaks privately and compassionately with those in the middle of their own cancer treatment.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be able to call someone going through the fight of their lives and tell them that we have some money for you,” said Hershey. “So this is one small thing you don’t have to worry about. It is so rewarding, and I have met people who I otherwise would not have met, and I count them as good friends.”
Brandi knows all too well how hard it is to consider the future when battling a life-threatening illness; but she has made it part of her plan to pay forward the kindnesses offered to her family.
“It may be strange for someone who had breast cancer to feel this, but I am so lucky,” she says. “Going forward, I am so cognizant of the debt of gratitude I feel I owe this community – it’s always in the back of my mind – how can I give back because I’ll never be able to pay back all of the kindnesses that were extended to me.”
“I always knew she had a lot of friends, she was well respected, and people cared for her,” added Brad, “But it was amazing the number of people who reached out and expressed concern for her and for our family… and that speaks to the kind of person that she is, that people are drawn to her by her personality, her kindness and wanting to help people.”
“It’s all perspective,” she says. “You’d like to think you can get through something like this and look back and say it was just a bump in the road. But it changes you forever, and it’s always with you. And I’ve come to believe that’s a good thing because it reminds me not to take anything for granted. I can be walking down the street like I have a hundred times, but it will strike me that I can feel the sun on my back and I can hear the birds, and I’ll take those few seconds to not rush, to close my eyes and listen, to smell the smells, enjoy the moment and to realize just how blessed we are.”