by Sarah Anderson | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
Stepping through the red doors of Gilda’s Club is often the most difficult thing a person can do. The driveway up to the restored white farmhouse takes you to a world removed from the hustle and bustle of Bridge Street. There is greenery everywhere, a fountain out front, and a charming rustic farmhouse with a small sign by the main doors depicting Gilda Radner’s image and a note that says, “Come on in,” as if you needed more encouragement, but some people do. Here, you are welcome, but here, you also acknowledge the dark cloud hovering above your head.
“It’s the hardest thing walking through those doors because you are admitting you’re on a journey that you never necessarily saw yourself on,” Wendy Wigger, president of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, explained. “When you come here, and you can be part of a community and connect with other people who may be on a different journey but can understand what it’s like to have life disrupted in that way, you’re able to be together and lean on each other during some of life’s toughest chapters.”
Gilda’s Club GR opened its doors in 2001 after three local women, Twink Frey, Deb Bailey, and Susan Smith, who are cancer survivors, set out to establish a place in our community that provides emotional support though some of life’s toughest journeys. Grand Rapids is home to the largest of 44 Gilda’s Club affiliates across the nation who provide free cancer and grief support to all ages.
Aside from being the largest in the nation, Gilda’s Club GR is the only location to serve dinner to all of its members Monday through Thursday.
“We know a lot of times community happens around meals; and support emotionally, directly or indirectly can happen whether you’re in a support group, around the table over dinner or in an art class,” Wigger expressed. “That support happens magically in a lot of environments. We also provide meals, so it’s one less thing for these families to worry about as they’re dealing with everything else.”
It’s also the only Gilda’s Club that has been able to take over the city with a 10-day festival of laughter: LaughFest. Is it the dinner and the comedy shows that’s contributed to their reach? Wigger attributes it to something else.
“When we first opened our doors on February 15, 2001, within six months we met and exceeded what we projected we would serve regarding people over five years. It speaks to the volume of the support of the community, the need for emotional health support and that people can be in this together. We do have a community who recognizes the value of emotional health.”
Gilda Radner was known for saying that cancer makes you part of a club that no one wants to join; however, resistance is a feeling far from the warm walls of each room in Gilda’s Club GR. Walk through the doors to a gleeful greeting from a volunteer. Hang your coat in the closet and head to the modern kitchen, usually packed with a team of volunteers cooking supper; make your way to the dining hall, full of mismatched tables and chairs that add to the charm; discover the upper level with a sunny breezeway connecting a large activity space with the intimate rooms used to hold small groups, each named after a Gilda Radner character.
Each room is slightly different than the next: one is filled with games, the next only holds furniture. They are all warm and inviting, and each has a box of tissues, a small reminder of the spectrum of emotions that are shared within the walls. The basement has been turned into a castle with every inch of the walls painted to portray the fun that happens for children in “Noogieland.”
There’s one message Wigger would like to tell everyone: They are welcome to walk through the red doors on any day for any reason. Feel free to support Gilda’s by giving your time as a volunteer at the clubhouse in Grand Rapids or Lowell, during LaughFest or in the community. Stop in and join a group no matter where you are in your journey of cancer or grief. You are even invited to pop by for a tour or to simply enjoy a cup of coffee in the iconic farmhouse that serves as a beacon of hope nestled on the edge of our city.
One Person’s Story
“One of the most private things we do is die.”
— Paula Hines
Pausing for a moment, Paula Hines explains, “I still get emotional,” as she divulged what brought her to Gilda’s Club in 2015: the cancer diagnosis and ultimate death of her youngest sister.
Hines’ sister had been living in Fairport, New York when she was diagnosed in July of 2015 with pancreatic, bile duct and liver cancer.
“She didn’t have a chance,” Hines said. “One of the most private things we do is die.”
Hines’ sister opted to fight her cancer and began chemotherapy.
The negative side effects of the chemotherapy put her in the hospital in early September of that year. It was there they discovered that the cancer had progressed despite the chemotherapy, and she entered hospice care. Because Hines wasn’t in the Fairport area, there was no one to make a referral for her to seek emotional support, so she researched on her own.
Hines remembered Gilda’s Club through LaughFest and went online to see what would be available to her. She joined a group of family and friends who had a loved one on a cancer journey and was able to share her frustrations and absorb support from those in the group experiencing similar pain.
Hines’ sister passed away in November. She had been hit with grief before, but this seemed to hit the hardest. With her sister gone, she was tasked with finding a way to define herself without that relationship.
“I had a baby sister,” Hines revealed. “Now, I don’t have one. Even though I have another sister who is younger than I am, she’s not the baby sister. She was really proud to be the baby girl. No one can be that again in our family.”
She joined Gilda’s Club’s six-week course called Living with Grief, in which she learned about the spiritual and physical aspects of grief.
“I never knew what a physical component grief had: the lethargy, the lack of appetite, the depression, and there’s something that we all talk about around here called the fog of grief. It just kind of surrounds you like a little force field, and it’s actually protective. It’s kind of combating. You’re so fragile you can’t bump up against the world without something between you and it. It’s almost like being in bubble wrap—stuff is going on around you, but you’re not really there or totally aware of it.”
After six weeks, Hines was placed in a dedicated group of people who meet often to share their stories while maintaining each other’s confidentiality.
“The thing I like about that group is, when you’re grieving you tend to repeat yourself. You say the same stories over and over. People who aren’t going through that, you tend to wear them out. They’ve heard it again and again and again, but we don’t mind listening to one another again and again and again because we need to say it again and and again and again. I meet my group every Monday and I’ve been coming since September 2015.”
Gilda’s Club support groups are led by licensed professionals who facilitate and help individuals navigate their unique journey with cancer and grief.
“They don’t tell you what to do, but they do tell you, ‘You may experience this, you may experience that,’” Hines revealed. “They are very careful to tell you that there is no right way to grieve. That is very liberating for people.”
When asked about the impact the organization had on her, Hines shared, “I’m single, my family doesn’t live around here, I didn’t really have anyone to grieve with because no one knew my sister. I would say [Gilda’s Club] saved my life.”