By Sue Webber
For the last 18 months, Chuck Niebauer has found a home away from home in a building with a red door at 10560 Wayzata Blvd., Minnetonka.
It is Gilda’s Club, a place where people living with cancer can come for social, emotional and psychological support. It’s a place that stands by its philosophy: No one should have to face cancer alone.
Membership is free. The club, one of 57 throughout the country, offers support and networking groups, lectures, workshops and social events, as well as structured programs for people living with cancer, their friends and families, including children and teens.
“I was given information about Gilda’s Club by an oncology social worker at Minnesota Oncology,” Niebauer said. “I’ve had a love relationship with it ever since. It’s the best thing my oncologist told me to do. I’m there at least two or three times a week.”
At 70, Niebauer is retired from his career in information technology.
He has enjoyed art classes, music therapy and improv classes at Gilda’s Club, as well as a Thursday night support group, and speakers that have been of interest to him.
“I can’t say enough good things about that place,” he said. “The volunteers, the staff, the people there with cancer have all been a blessing. It helps you forget why you’re there. If you’re having a tough day, either medical or attitude, you can take a class and feel so much better when you leave. The people are just fantastic. It’s such an important part of my life.”
It helps to know that others at Gilda’s Club have experienced some of the same things he’s going through, Niebauer said. “Everybody understands,” he said. “We’ve become family. They’ve done so much for me.”
Even though he has a college degree in art, Niebauer said, he found that you don’t have to be an artist to enjoy an art class. “The first day in improv class, all of a sudden I realized that I was trying something I thought I was afraid of,” he said. He’s had help writing two songs since he joined Gilda’s Club, he said.
Allison DeCamillis, program director at Gilda’s Club for the last 3 years, said the club’s membership includes more than 2,000 people, evenly distributed by gender, half of whom are 55 and older.
The club’s online calendar is printed two months at a time on the website. Programs are offered 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. It is structured into five core groups:
- Support trained groups
- Healthy life activities, such as walking, exercise, nutrition, mind/body and creative arts
- Educational sessions, including speakers
- Social opportunities
- Information and referral
Gilda’s Club is not just for individuals living with a diagnosis, DeCamillis said. “It includes family members, friends, kids, teens and caregivers,” she said. “Cancer is so much more than a chronic illness. People are living so much longer. It impacts the whole family. There are many more caregivers.
“We have a fair number of people who drop by for coffee,” she said. “A lot of them became friends through activities, and they meet here to hang out or have lunch or do some writing.”
Gilda’s Club is a complement to the medical community, DeCamillis said. “We’re not a clinic. It feels homelike here. We have a living room, kitchen and meeting rooms, a kids and teens room and a mind/body study room. It’s a unique place.
“People think it will be a sad or difficult place to be. Gilda’s Club is a positive environment, one of people learning to live with cancer. That doesn’t mean that a lot of tears aren’t shed here, though,” she said.
Some people find Gilda’s Club on their own, while others are referred to it by oncologists or radiologists in the health care system.
“Some people have been here since we opened 3 ½ years ago,” DeCamillis said. “We focus on creating a community of support. They might be newly diagnosed. As they move beyond that, they go to post-treatment support. If their cancer is no longer an identifying factor in their lives, they become volunteers because they feel the need to give back.”
The Minnetonka club has grown quickly, thanks to support from grants and donors. “It is built by our community for our community, and it is sustained by our community,” DeCamillis said.
Information: 612-227-2147 or [email protected]
ABOUT GILDA’S CLUB
Gilda’s Club, founded in 1991, is named in memory of comedian Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer in 1989. Gilda is best known for her work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Her book, It’s Always Something, describes her life with cancer. Gilda once said that cancer gave her “membership to an elite club I’d rather not belong to,” which is where the name Gilda’s Club originated.
Gilda’s Club was founded by Joanna Bull, Gilda Radner’s cancer psychotherapist and Gilda’s husband Gene Wilder, with the help of film critic Joel Siegel, actor/singer Mandy Patinkin and several of Gilda’s other friends. The first Gilda’s Club, including a worldwide training center, opened its signature red door in New York City in 1995.
The language of Gilda’s Club:
- People living with cancer, NOT cancer victims or patients
- Learning to live with cancer, NOT coping with cancer or facing a life-threatening illness
- Regaining control and wellbeing, NOT doing battle, struggling with cancer or fighting for recovery
- Opportunity to join with others and share experiences, NOT being helpless or in need of help
- Club members, NOT clients
- Cancer support community, NOT cancer support group
- Living fully as one learns to live with cancer, NOT improving one’s quality of life
- A warm and welcoming clubhouse, NOT a safe haven
- Learning skills and gathering information, NOT receiving education
- A place to express a full range of feelings, NOT a place to “stay positive”