Andrea Feldmar, LMHC, loves her job. She is a licensed mental health counselor and program director at the Center for Building Hope in Sarasota, Florida. Andrea feels fortunate to hold this position because it offers her a unique opportunity to impact those who have been diagnosed with cancer. “It’s a labor of love,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The Center for Building Hope is a nonprofit organization that provides psychological, social, and educational services to support those who have been impacted by a cancer diagnosis and the loved ones who care for them. One of the things that a cancer diagnosis brings is a sense of isolation along with depression and anxiety. “We have found that reducing feelings of isolation and improving the quality of life really impacts the patient’s outcome,” Andrea explains. “Patients who receive support are more likely to be compliant if they are not depressed and if they are connected with people who understand what they are experiencing.”
The Center for Building Hope provides support groups and educational workshops where anyone who has been affected by a cancer diagnosis can learn coping skills—regardless of the stage of their disease. All support groups are led by licensed clinicians. Drawing on its own resources as well as those supplied through partnerships with world-class health providers, the center offers family programs, networking groups, individual counseling, workshops with physicians and other experts, and nutritional programs. All programs are evidence-based and offered at no cost to participants. The center also conducts integrative exercise therapy classes—such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, and guided imagery—in conjunction with information about traditional medical approaches to address the psychosocial side of the cancer diagnosis. “It’s about eliciting the relaxation response, which allows cancer patients to think more clearly,” Andrea explains. “When you think clearly, you can make an educated decision as opposed to a fear-based reaction.”
Symbol of Hope
The original concept for the Center for Building Hope was to create an environment that would offer hope to cancer patients by building a bridge from diagnosis to recovery. To visually represent this concept, the center’s LEED-certified environmentally friendly building has a symbolic “bridge of hope” that connects its main buildings. The state-of-the-art facility was designed to be an optimal healing environment that combines healing arts and nature. Surrounded by serene gardens, it is a model facility that has served thousands of people affected by cancer.
Andrea joined the center in 2010 but has been a mental health counselor for 20 years. She has a personal understanding of what cancer patients and their caregivers go through. Her daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia a number of years ago when she was only two years old. Andrea remembers feeling that she had no one to talk to who could understand. But she did have tremendous support from family and friends. Her story had a happy ending: her daughter recovered and recently graduated from college. “The reality is that not all of those impacted by cancer are as fortunate as we were,” she says. “There are people out there that don’t have family to lean on. I felt that no one should have to go through this experience without the emotional support and resources that can offer some hope.” She’s been working to provide support ever since.
“We are all about empowering people with knowledge because knowledge is power,” Andrea explains. As program director, she is responsible for the programs that the center offers, including choosing the topics and developing the programs both at the center’s facility in Sarasota and now on its website.
A Presence Online
To be able to help cancer patients and their family members beyond its geographic location in Florida, the Center for Building Hope has launched an online offering called the Health Support Network that provides the same resources that the Center for Building Hope has been offering to cancer patients in Sarasota for almost 20 years.
The website’s goal is to be an aggregator of already vetted information. To achieve this goal, the center has partnered with the Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa, an NCI-designated cancer hospital, and with other Florida cancer specialists, such as Florida Cancer Specialists, the largest privately held oncology practice in the country, to include the volume of cutting edge cancer information that these partners possess. The site launched in October 2014. Already, it has received more than 33,000 visits. “We expect to produce about 200 videos a year while we partner with other preeminent cancer organizations that can offer current, relevant information for our participants,” Andrea says.
A Growing Need
In the meantime, new cancer patients are being diagnosed every day. More than 100,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer this year in Florida alone. The Center for Building Hope expects to provide more than 30,000 hours of free support this year at a cost of $58 an hour. Yet, the center receives no state or federal funding. All funding comes from private donations, foundations, and fundraising. Its primary source of funding is a program known as Brides Against Breast Cancer, a unique enterprise that collects donated wedding gowns from brides, designers, and stores and then resells them at a reduced cost on what they call their “Nationwide Tour of Gowns.“ “We host events all over the country where we resell these wedding gowns,” Andrea explains. “When we first started, we hosted 60 bridal shows a year. This year, we will do 160 shows.”
The center also raises money by organizing a series of microevents held in communities all over the country that allow local professionals to network while they raise funds for a cause. The center has a team that organizes these events, which book up months in advance. Each event features a different group of professionals—real estate professionals, entrepreneurs, doctors, or wealth management advisors, for example. Each professional invites friends and colleagues to attend and donate. “It’s a great way of engaging people with our cause,” Andrea explains. “After all, everybody either has been touched by cancer or knows someone who has.”
Looking ahead, Andrea is working to build relationships with more organizations. “We want to partner with all of the cancer research hospitals and with those professionals who have a relationship with cancer patients—whether they be home health care providers, community cancer centers, or primary care physicians,” she says. “We want Health Support Network to become the go-to site for cancer information.”