Gilda’s Club Lifts Spirits


by Jean Scherwenka

When Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, her Milwaukee native husband Gene Wilder and her cancer therapist Joanna Bull committed to making one of Radner’s dreams come true – a community where people touched by cancer could benefit from the kinds of emotional and social support she had received. The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995, and today there are 20 Clubs throughout the U.S. and Canada. We are fortunate to have one here in Milwaukee at 4050 N. Oakland Avenue. Radner’s spirit permeates the Club and greets you the minute you walk through the bright red door – Roseanne

Roseannadanna’s colorful caricature waves from the door of a yellow bus in a mural above the receptionist’s desk. Further in and up a few stairs, another mural shows “rural” Roseanne flying a helicopter over the seven Wisconsin counties served by the Club. You have to smile. You may even have to laugh out loud. And that is exactly one of the missions of Gilda’s Club and one of Radner’s legacies – seeing the humor in life.

Program Director Susan Mingesz and Marketing and Donor Relations Associate Stacy Mitz gave me a tour of the Club and introduced me to the many services and programs offered. Support groups are available for anyone living with cancer and for their family members and friends. Licensed professionals facilitate the groups, “but we don’t set the agenda,” says Mingesz. “We’re not the experts. We believe the experts are those going through the experience.”

The Club’s resource library offers CDs, audio/video tapes, and books covering subjects related to cancer, as well as spirituality, meditation, and just plain entertainment. Members can research their cancer questions on the library’s touchscreen, interactive computer program, CancerHelp. All information is presented in English or Spanish and is updated monthly.

Next to the library, a small kitchen stocks food, coffee and tea available for all. Sunshine pours through skylights over a hallway leading to several living rooms designed in different styles for socializing, reading, watching television or videos, and meditating. Afghans knit or crocheted by volunteers are always within reach for warmth or comfort.

If a member is tired or craves some privacy, the “Always Something” room soft quilt invites folks to lie down for a nap or a good cry, or to zone out watching an aquarium of tropical fish. The room also gives children space for a quiet time out.

Noogieland is a supervised play and activity area for children diagnosed with cancer or those having a friend or family member with cancer. Therapeutic play groups (Small Talk) and support groups for teenagers (Teen Time) help young people deal with their questions and emotions. “In Noogieland you can share your feelings and you don’t have to worry about people going and telling other people,” says a young member. “You just feel safe here.”

A large community room accommodates potluck suppers, lectures, yoga or Gentle Stretch classes, and the monthly Chef Series (see sidebar). Watercolor, paper quilting, and scrapbooking are taught in the art studio. All credentialed instructors are volunteers, and all classes and supplies are free.

Membership in Gilda’s Club is absolutely free, and members are never solicited. “We rely solely on donations from the community, individuals, companies or foundations,” Mitz explains.

The Club also receives funds from special events throughout the community, including two annual fundraisers – the Woof and Hoof dog walk in August, and the upcoming luncheon and fashion show, “A Show of Support,” Wednesday, April 5 from 11:30- 1:30 at the Italian Community Center. Cancer survivors modeling spring fashions will walk down the catwalk accompanied by a support person of their choice. Gilda Radner felt that no one should ever have to face cancer alone. Thanks to her dream and the generous donations and support of many, none of us in this area should ever have to do that.

To join Gilda’s Club, receive a calendar of events, or to register for classes and events, call 414-962-8201. Clubhouse hours are Mon/Wed 10-2 pm, Tues/Thurs 12-8 pm, and whenever activities are scheduled.

Riverwest Currents online edition – March, 2006