“We have many guests that have to continue working at their jobs through their treatment, and don’t always have the opportunity to take sick days. This needs to change. Otherwise, we’d see many guests repeat this experience unless they understand those mind, body and soul connections and learn to hit that pause button and use beneficial tools for their toolbox.”
I had the pleasure to interview Michele Gannon and Maria McKeon, founders of Mary’s Place by the Sea, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women who are receiving treatment for cancer. They provide services that complement their medical treatment, including oncology massages, nutrition education, individual counseling, expressive writing, reflexology, Reiki, guided meditation, prayer, and yoga…at no cost to their guests.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us your personal backstory and the backstory of this wonderful organization?
Michele: The mission for Mary’s Place by the Sea really came about in January of 2009 when I was home, sick with a short-term illness. I did not have cancer. I had three small children and they circled around me in the bed and kept poking me and asking me to get up. I thought then, we as women and mothers and wives, we just keep pushing ourselves. I really needed to rest and spend some time recovering but thought how we just kept pushing ourselves. A few weeks later, I said to my husband, I wonder what a woman does when she has a long-term illness like cancer. No one is giving her permission to hit the pause button to focus on herself and to spend the time to catch her breath. That is when I started obsessing about the idea and dreaming about it and praying about it. I ran into my friend Maria McKeon at the gym, who is also a yoga instructor with many contacts in the fitness world. I said to her, “I had this idea and I don’t know if it will make sense, but I need to meet some of the people, you know.” Together, we hit the ground running and opened our first Mary’s place by the Sea, actually out of a bed and breakfast in June of 2009. The goal was to see if the mission would take flight to see if women would come. We started with an introductory email to many of our friends on social media and in one day we had 33 responses with interest. This was the day that Mary’s Place by the Sea was officially born.
Yitzi: Ok, amazing. This clearly is a lot work, I’m sure you have to spend a lot of time and energy, raising funds, etcetera. So what drives you?
Maria: Every single day we are surrounded by women here at our home or on the phone or social media. They drive me. Their stories and experiences are inspiring. When women come here, sometimes feeling broken, their energy is low and hope seems lost, they come here for renew. When a guest from Minnesota left last week, having come to Mary’s Place twice she said that her healing began when she first arrived and that she is forever grateful. Many of our guests say when they walked through the door they felt supported and loved. There are, unfortunately, some of our past guests who have lost their battles to cancer. What drives us even more is when their loved ones return to share their thanks and appreciation with for helping their moms, sisters, wives and friends during their difficult time and to be able to offer what they could not.
Yitzi: Wow, that’s beautiful. Can you tell us a story about a particular person who has been helped by Mary’s Place by the Sea?
Maria: One of our guests, Vicki came to us after helping her husband who lost his cancer battle. She knocked on the door and when I greeted her she fell into my arms crying. She too was diagnosed with cancer and had just spent the last year and a half utilizing all of her finances for supportive care in terms of massage, Reiki guided imagery, whatever she could do to heal herself and be her own healthcare advocate. She knew she needed a place to go to heal: body, mind and soul. She came to Mary’s Place. We created this quiet space for women like Vicki to catch their breath, support through holistic services and help uncover all the layers they are dealing with including grief, stress and trauma and more.
Michele: When we started building our newest home we offered families an opportunity to sponsor bedrooms as a way to give back while also honoring their loved ones. Two years later, we heard a knock at the door from a woman and her 12-year-old granddaughter. She sponsored a room in her daughter Aimee’s name and asked if they could come to see it. Aimee had never been to Mary’s Place. It was only after she passed away from her battle with breast cancer that her family learned about our respite. It was then that they realized that women all around the country need to know about Mary’s Place and what it offers. Their donation was incredibly meaningful knowing how much they wanted to do for others. Being able to come back and connect through the touch of things in the room, reading the journal at the bedside that guests write intimate thoughts in, and, overall, to feel something symbolic of their loved one, was priceless. Aimee’s daughter also told us that she wears our Mary’s Place t-shirts to sleep in every night as it brings her closer to her mom. Mary’s Place is definitely about the women with cancer who we help. But, it’s also for the families and others who need to feel some connection and/or solace to a bigger cause and higher power. This is what gets us up every day and fuels our mission and commitment even further.
Yitzi: Are there three things that either community, society or politicians can do to help address the root of the problem? Is there anything that can be done to address the systemic underlying causes of this problem?
Maria: We have many guests that have to continue working at their jobs through their treatment, and don’t always have the opportunity to take sick days. This needs to change. Otherwise, we’d see many guests repeat this experience unless they understand those mind, body and soul connections and learn to hit that pause button and use beneficial tools for their toolbox.
Michele: We have provided a place that is non-clinical and non-medical in the atmosphere. So when a guest arrives here, she lets her guard down and feels like she’s on vacation. Then, we are really able to dig deep into those emotional layers into those stressors and we get a lot of authentic discussion from them. We believe that we have a prototype for what the future of healthcare needs to be. It needs to be something that helps support the mind, body and soul and is married with treatment. There are so many things to learn when diagnosed with cancer. Many focus on the cancer itself and just treatment. For example, nutrition, is very important as some foods can cause inflammatory responses. At Mary’s Place we help to provide that education and insight and have many trained resources. Patients need something to believe in and they need to know that they can be active participants in their treatment, which is empowering. I believe that we see a change in our guests as we show them the importance of self care, prevention, counseling, writing, and more, to help prepare them for the next year, psychologically and physically, reminding them of the importance of self care. Everything that we provide for our guests here is completely free of charge as they are dealing with so much already and managing other major medical expenses. Therefore, we are always having to raise money and are so appreciative of our supporters to date. The three things that the community, society and politicians can help us do is to spread the word about Mary’s Place, establish laws to recognize the importance of self care when dealing with a life-threatening illness and to push for better healthcare self-care insurance coverage to protect patients undergoing cancer treatment so that they can dedicate much-needed time to treatment, self care and treatment.
Yitzi: Are there five things that you wish somebody told you when you first started this organization?
Michele: We have learned how important it is to surround ourselves with a community who is like-minded, aligned and understands the mission. Without that community, you’re pretty much on an island by yourself. It taught me by the end of the first year, that with the flow of guests who we were seeing there would’ve been absolute no way we could have sustained the mission with just the two of us. We were literally doing everything from prepping food to cleaning rooms, turning around to services, to managing finances and fundraising. It is imperative that you build a community. For some reason, I’ve always had this visual of our Mary’s Place community that starts with Maria and I driving and an old blue pickup truck driving down the road and having women say, “I’ll jump on board.” Since we started this adventure, the truck has filled up and no one has really jumped off.
Michele: I have no idea why that’s my vision, but I make sure everyone in the truck is happy and understands how important it is to have their positive energy. We also learned early on that it makes a lot of sense to ask someone what their expectations are when they are interested in volunteering at Mary’s Place. There are many different areas for volunteers to focus on here. When someone says “I want to be a volunteer,” through trial and error we’ve learned how to specify to them the different roles we are looking to fill. If someone does not want to sit with guests and they’d rather file in the office, then we can accommodate for people who say “I want to do something for you and with you.” Then there are the donors. We rely heavily on third party fundraisers, groups of people who say that they want to host a fundraiser for us, and we had to learn important life lessons like realizing that they may have chosen to do that for an alternative reason. We’ve gotten very clear with asking “who are you, what do you expect from us? Who are you serving? How many people are we expected to bring? What are your goals for the fundraiser now? How would you like the money to be used?” We never read about all of these questions you just learn through experience.
We are not very conventional here, so one thing we have learned through our growth is that you do not have to have it all neatly packaged before launching your business.
I love saying to just jump and grow your wings on the way down. That’s what we did when we moved from a two bedroom B&B space to a five bedroom home rental. I realized it worked when we went from not having raised a dollar, to putting in the work to spread the word about our mission and then receiving enough support within a month to cover rent for about five to seven months.
Our core values, which are a strong testament who we are, were only drafted this year. This is the ninth year, but it took us that long to really figure it out and put it on paper. Since we have such a large community with over 125 volunteers and a staff of nine, plus we’re fully occupied every single day, seven days a week in the home, we really needed to put the words on paper. This is who we are, and our core values describe who we are and what we do so there are no surprises for anyone when they come visit.
I believe that we have been so successful because we spend a lot of time listening to people. When it comes to the people we serve, we listen to what they need, what’s important to them, and we realize that is what makes our mission so different and impactful.
Finally, we don’t compare ourselves to anyone. In the very beginning there was nothing to go off of as an example. We created it. Now we are the prototype, and when we think about larger hospitals or integrative wellness centers that are popping up everywhere, sometimes we lean in and compare ourselves to them. We both decided that’s very counterproductive for us. We are who we are and where we are supposed to be. We’ve grown organically and the way we feel we were supposed to. We’ve been very patient with the standing of our growth, but we never take our foot off the gas. We work every day on this mission.
We collectively joined forces and the motivation has been truly to serve others. It’s a constant challenge to ask for funding, but when we’re asking, we always consider the fact that it is for another person. That way, when you put your head on your pillow at the end of the day, you know you did a good thing and you’re doing this to help women in need, like your wife, mother, sister or daughter.
At Mary’s Place, we are truly changing perspectives and changing lives for others. It could be as simple as one of the things that they’ve done to improve their lifestyle, such as incorporating meals from our cookbook, for example.
As you can imagine, there is a waiting list for women to get in. So the benefits from our offerings, such as the cookbook, are a way to help incorporate that understanding for better nutrition so that others can also get access to them. Just observing what goes on in our home is definitely a life-altering experience. You just can’t walk out of here without your heart feeling full.
Yitzi: Ok, amazing. Last question. I’m very blessed that a lot of prominent people read my column, so now’s your chance in a subtle way to reach out to them. Is there somebody that you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with and why because he or she might just see this?
Michele: This is hard to answer. We have been blessed to have Bon Jovi give us a fundraising concert. We have Sarah McLachlan and Patty Griffin who are Grammy Award winning artists sponsoring and coming together to give us a concert in the end of July, which will hopefully push us over the $200,000 mark
We are really looking for someone who could be an ambassador. I don’t quite know who that person is yet, but it’s the woman who would identify with our mission, who identifies with needing permission as women to take a break to hit the pause button, and it’s that woman who sees how we fill such a dire need.
We’re overbooked and there’s such a lengthy wait list that we need to grow this mission. Women are coming here from all over the country to stay just two nights, and knowing that this mission can grow and be sustained throughout the entire country, with the right ambassador, we can connect with them and grow this mission.
Someone who’s reading this column and thinks “yes, let me link arms with them because I understand the burdens needed to grow this mission” could be the right fit. Our heads are in the trenches and we are working every single day, right here. Every woman who walks across our path could be the right fit, I might’ve come across this person, but we’re going to continue what we’re doing and we’ll know when the right person comes along.
Maria: Mary’s Place is a joyful place where women are leaning on each other, sharing their space, coming from all walks of life, all demographics and it feels truly lovely in here. It’s not about feeling sad about their diagnosis and prognosis. It feels high energy and gives women permission to become fresh and new while giving and receiving love. We are so glad to be here each and every day. Mary’s Place changes your perspective on your life, and I believe that anyone who is meant to meet us will come and it will be a life-changing experience.
We encourage all to visit our website. Call us. Reach out to us. We are here to help and want to provide women with cancer, and their loved ones, the support they need to heal: body, mind and soul.
Originally published at medium.com