At the corner of Broadway and Union, there’s an old brick building with striking red doors and a sign that is mostly covered by a tree. I’ve walked past the building numerous times, but I never knew what was behind the red double doors.
The inconspicuous building is home to Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting people who are affected by cancer, either directly or indirectly. Gilda’s offers social and emotional support to people who are dealing with cancer; it’s a place where they can open up and talk about cancer openly and how it has affected their lives.
Anna Gottlieb, the Executive Director, opened the Seattle location on Broadway Avenue in 2002. It is the only location in the Pacific Northwest. Years earlier, in 1995, she had gone to the grand opening of the flagship facility in New York City and was inspired by the community and the humor that went along with cancer. She wanted to create a similar space that fostered this sense of community for those who are coping.
This week, Camp Sparkle, a five-day camp for kids, kicks off. The main room, known as the Dance Hall, is teeming with kids ranging from two to eighteen. After visiting the Seattle Police Department, they spent the afternoon in Cal Anderson Park with therapy dogs, and are currently working on memory books which they’ll share with the group at the end of camp.
Michelle Massey, the Program Director, stands at the front of the room keeping an eye on the group. Nora, a young girl, runs over to her jumping into her arms. Massey, bouncing the little girl in her arms, stresses that “Cancer is a part of their lives, but it doesn’t define their lives. This is not the only hurdle that they will fight in their lives.”
All of the children seated at the small chairs around the long tables scribbling away on their memory books have been affected by cancer. Either one of their parents or relatives, or someone they know, has it or has had it, or died from it. A few of the children themselves have cancer, including a young boy named Connor who is quietly working on his memory book. But, despite the somber nature of this organization’s mission, Gilda’s Club isn’t a sad place.
In fact, there’s a lot of humor that gets tossed around when discussing cancer. “I always tell people that I’m really glad you’re here. I mean, I’m not glad you have cancer,” said Massey, laughing, “but I’m glad you’re here.”
The word isn’t taboo in here and it’s not something you whisper about. Massey explains that this is one of the only places where these children can open up about their experiences. They’re not going to talk about it in school and it might be too tough to talk about it at home with their families. Instead, Gilda’s Club provides an outlet where they are surrounded by people who are just like them.
The Junior Counselors, ranging from twelve to fifteen years old, sit on couches that line the outer edge of the room. They typically start out as campers themselves until they advance into a leadership role. Two of the junior counselors, Kailee Taylor and Juliet Brown, explained how cancer has affected them personally.
Kailee, fifteen years old, says that her mother and her grandmothers had cancer. Her mom is a survivor. Juliet, fourteen years old, says that her father died from kidney cancer. She describes how the support groups at Gilda’s Club helped her deal with her father’s passing, and how she even brought a close friend with her to some of the meetings because she was also having a difficult time with Juliet’s father’s death.
The two girls have an air of leadership in the way that they speak about their experiences. Talking about how prevalent it is today and how many people are affected by it, Kailee points out that there are treatments that exist now that didn’t exist when her mom had cancer. “There’s this really cool stomach cancer one that repels cancer—it makes it so that the cancer can’t get into the walls of your stomach.”
During the next four days, the campers will go to the zoo, barbecue at Alki Beach, and meet the Seahawks on Friday. Massey says that she tries to find events that are fun for everyone.
This is the eleventh year of Camp Sparkle. There will be one more camp session in July, in Seattle, and another in August, in Tacoma. The organization stresses that everyone in the family, not just those with cancer, deserves equal support.
Gilda’s features an ongoing children and teen program, support groups on the first and third Saturdays of every month, and workshops to help manage stress. On Sunday, August 3rd, there’s a sailboat cruise on Puget Sound. It’s all free and open to anyone touched by cancer.
“This morning was the first day of camp and in our welcome circle,” said Massey. “I said, ‘Raise your hand if your mom or dad has cancer or if one of your parents has died from cancer.’ Pretty soon everyone’s hands were raised and the kids all looked around and couldn’t believe it. They’re not alone and they realized that.”
Gilda’s Club Seattle