Shifting the Focus to Living

Through emotional support and engagement, Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana is changing the lives of those affected by cancer.

By Mariah Kline
Photos by
Kathryn Harrington

In the last 10 years, Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana has provided essential support to thousands of people affected by cancer. Individuals living with the disease – as well as parents, children, siblings, spouses, friends and all manner of loved ones – gather in the clubhouse each week to find an encouraging community and a home away from home.

No matter how
long a cancer journey is, your life is worth living during it.”
— Karen Morrison

For those who have never gotten acquainted with Gilda’s Club, the nonprofit is named after late actress Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Following her passing, her husband, Gene Wilder, along with family members and friends, founded the organization to provide emotional support for those living with cancer.

This summer, Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana officially opened the doors to its new clubhouse on Grinstead Drive, giving staff members and volunteers the chance to help even more people. Fueled by passion and purpose, the caring group of individuals is settling into their new home and preparing for one of Gilda’s largest fundraisers of the year.

The New Digs

Gilda’s Club’s new home includes even more rooms for groups to meet in, an expanded community room that can hold almost 400 people, an upgraded Noogieland (children’s area) and a well-equipped exercise room.

“We hope to serve three times as many families over the next five years,” says President and CEO Karen Morrison. “We now have a facility and parking lot that will allow us to do that here.”

The interior design of the new clubhouse and their former home on Baxter Avenue were both completed by Bittners. Designer Chad Cobb worked alongside the Gilda’s team to maintain the pleasant and soothing vibe that the first clubhouse possessed.

“We were thrilled to be working with the wonderful people at Gilda’s Club for a second time,” says Cobb. “We designed this new space with a comfortable, cozy feel – like when you enter someone’s home. The colors, fabrics and textiles are all light and inviting. We did add fun pops of color throughout the space in the pillows and the artwork.”

“All of the Bittners’ team, including our Chairman Laura Frazier, has supported Gilda’s Club for a very long time,” adds President and COO Douglas Riddle. “It is dear to our hearts, and Chad Cobb has done a beautiful design job of capturing the spirit of Gilda’s Club.”

Furnishing and decorating the building was a massive undertaking, but Cobb worked to ensure that every element of the design brought value.

“It’s not just the aesthetics but the functionality,” Morrison says of the pieces he chose. “Chad would make sure that everything is functional and comfortable for the folks who use it. … He tried to make sure we used everything we could from the old building and spend as little money as possible.”

Also in the works are plans to expand into other areas of the city and the state starting as early as next year. The first-ever Gilda’s Club branch in West Louisville will launch at the Republic Bank YMCA, which is set to open in February.

“The goal is to increase access and eliminate barriers,” Morrison says. “Even though it’s less than five miles away, there are folks who have transportation issues, so we want to go closer into their neighborhoods.”

Hundreds of people gather at the clubhouse each week for support and networking groups, social events, shared meals, fitness classes, educational and artistic opportunities and more. By providing these invaluable resources, Gilda’s Club is changing the way people live with cancer.

Life is Worth Living

“So often when a cancer diagnosis comes into the family, it is all-consuming and people within that family do what I call ‘hit the giant pause button,’” explains Morrison. “They think they’ve just got to focus on and fight this cancer, and then they’ll restart life when they get past it.”

Too many people know, however, that cancer isn’t something you always get past. Many people battle their illness for several years and never get to experience recovery.

“No matter how long a cancer journey is, your life is worth living during it,” she says. “Gilda’s Club is all about shifting the focus to living your life while cancer is a part of it and not letting it be all-consuming – not only for the patient but for the whole family. Not everyone’s focus has to be about fear, isolation and anxiety. Those symptoms are all contagious. Positivity likewise is contagious.”

Overwhelming data shows that the quality of a person’s life, and their chances of recovery, increase when they are in a positive state of mind. Morrison has seen how attitude can make a difference for Gilda’s Club members.

Felisha Dowdy, Gilda’s Night co-chair.

“If you believe that you’re going to get better, you’re more likely to get better,” she says. “If you believe that you’re going to get worse, you’re more likely to get worse. Coming here helps people believe more in the possibilities and in living life while there’s still plenty of life to be lived.”

The president and CEO has experienced this firsthand in her own life. Several members of her family have gone through a cancer journey including her 23-year-old daughter.

“We were told when she was five that she had probably four weeks to live,” Morrison explained. “Her heart stopped seven times when she was 11, and then she had a recurrence in 2017. But she finished college at Stanford University. She’s driven and she lives her life full of meaning and purpose. She knows that she has a cancer gene and she’s likely to get cancer again, but I don’t know anyone who lives their life with more joy and purpose and style.”

A Night to Remember

Though Gilda’s Club has branches across the United States and beyond, all of the funds raised in Kentuckiana are used to help local families. On Nov. 8, Gilda’s will host their annual gala fundraiser, Gilda’s Night, which will be held at the clubhouse so every supporter has a chance to tour the new space.

The honorary chairs for this year’s event are Dan and Julie McDonnell, the University of Louisville head baseball coach and his wife. Co-chairing Gilda’s Night is Felisha Dowdy, who serves as the vice president and senior community banking and treasury management relationship manager for Paducah Bank’s Louisville office. She first got involved with the cause five years ago through the party’s founder Annette Grisanti, and Dowdy has served on the planning committee ever since.

“It’s not as corporate (as other events),” she explained. “A donor said to me a couple of years ago that it’s the best cocktail party for 350 people. It feels intimate. You see the reality of what cancer has done and how it’s affected people because you have those folks there and their families are with them.”

“It’s kind of a magical event that has that right mix of feel-good philanthropy and a unique venue,” Morrison says.

“We hope it’ll be a fun-filled night for those who are here – whether they’re survivors or families of survivors,” Dowdy affirms.

The team at Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana is looking forward to sharing their new space with community supporters and furthering their impact. While their contributions to the cancer world are emotional and not medical, Morrison and company know that their work is making a monumental difference.

“Someone asked me the other day if we do any research to cure cancer,” she recalled. “I said no, but we cure some of the symptoms of cancer: fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness and hopelessness. We are a cure for that.” V

For more information about Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana, visit gck.org or call 502.583.0075.

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