Club makes frightening journey less daunting
HUNTSVILLE - I recently had a tour of Gilda’s Club in Barrie, after encouragement from my social worker husband who is on the Family Health Care Team there. We both feel that it is an important resource for all of Muskoka.
Gilda’s Club’s vision is that no one should have to face cancer alone. It provides emotional support, networking groups, workshops and lectures. It also allows men, women, teens and children who have been diagnosed with cancer, along with their families and friends, to receive peer support and participate in a variety of fun social activities. It is named after Gilda Radner, a comedian and actress who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Residents of Huntsville have access to Gilda’s Club as it serves all of Simcoe, Muskoka, Parry Sound, Grey-Bruce and Dufferin Counties. Sixty per cent of the members live outside of Barrie and are also connected with organizations in their own communities.
Six full-time staff and 200 dedicated volunteers run Gilda’s Club, which is located very close to the new Simcoe Muskoka Regional Cancer Centre. The community raised $3.6 million in a capital campaign to make this beautiful 10,000 square foot bungalow possible. Stephanie Knight, the director of development who gave me the tour, had many heartwarming stories of the people who came forward to offer their services at reduced or no cost to ensure that the building was finished.
Volunteer greeters at Gilda’s Club are trained to meet people, who have just been told by their doctors that they have cancer, as they come through the front door. These clients next meet with one of the trained professionals employed at the facility.
Presently 45 per cent of members of Gilda’s Club are living with cancer and 55 per cent are family and friends supporting someone living with cancer. To become a member, a person must attend a new member’s meeting and then meet with one of the club’s mental health professionals about their cancer experience one-on-one.
Every program in the facility is free for members; organizers believe that members have already paid the ultimate price in being diagnosed with cancer. Members often experience financial pressures when faced with cancer, because one or both of the spouses may no longer be able to work.
There are 13 types of support groups offered at Gilda’s Club, each run by volunteers under the supervision of a mental health professional (social worker or nurse). The support groups are constantly evolving to suit the members and their needs. Cancer transition programs exist to help people with the next stages of their cancer using the latest developed research.
“Noogieland” is a brightly lit and spacious playroom where children from four to 12 can play and paint. This play area is also important as it helps to flag potential problems. I was given an example of a child who was painting only in red. It was finally determined that a parent with cancer was getting regular blood transfusions and no one had yet spoken to the child about it.
A large living room adjoins a dining room and kitchen where members meet for coffee talk, family nights, cards and teen baking projects. There is also a teen room exclusively for teenagers. There are rooms for yoga and belly dancing, a library and group sessions. Men are encouraged to come out for poker nights where they might eventually feel comfortable talking about the effects that cancer has had on them.
During my tour there was a group of ladies having coffee, laughing, talking and exchanging their cancer stories.
Once a month cancer experts come to talk about the latest cancer research and clinical trials.
The art room is the most popular area of all. Stephanie told me about a woman who recently arrived with a box of family memorabilia. She had just been told that she had three weeks to live. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and proceeded to help her to organize and make a book that her family would remember her by. Stephanie said that there is an incredible amount of bonding and empathy among fellow members in the club.
In 2009, Gilda’s Club joined with a similar institution, The Wellness Community, under the new name, Cancer Support Community. It is now the largest employer of oncology mental health professionals in North America and has access to a wealth of new cancer research. There are only two Gilda’s Clubs in Canada, one in Toronto and one in Barrie. However there are nearly 50 affiliates and 100 satellite locations worldwide.
Construction has begun on ‘Rotary House’ nearby which is a residential lodge where cancer patients and their families living more than 40 kilometres outside of Barrie can reside during their treatments. It is being built with a $1.5-million pledge from a dozen Rotary Clubs across the region and will be connected underground to the new Simcoe Muskoka Regional Cancer Centre.
Cancer is a very frightening, unexpected road to travel down for patients and their loved ones. Knowing that there are state-of-the-art treatment and emotional/social support centres closer than Toronto should be comforting to residents of Huntsville who may be in need. It will help to make their cancer journey less daunting.
Karen Cassian is a freelance writer and artist. She is a board member for the Festival of the Arts and a member of the Huntsville Art Society. She is also co-chair of Huntsville’s Unity Plan Committee representing arts, culture, heritage, social well-being and affordable housing. Cassian lives in an energy-efficient home in the forest with her husband Brian and golden retriever puppy Sir Barnaby.