Cancer Resource Center: Ithaca’s Network of Compassionate Folks

For some, it’s a way to honor a friend lost to cancer. For others, it stems from an experience in caregiving. For many, it’s a way to help those who need it most.

Whatever the motivation, a quiet, loose network of volunteers has been supplying restaurant gift cards, baked goods, scarves, mugs and more to clients of the local Cancer Resource Center for years, sometimes anonymously, and always asking nothing in return.

Bob Riter is the executive director of the Ithaca-based Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes, which serves over 1,000 people each year, either in person or over the phone, with a wide range of services. Riter said the volunteers working behind the scenes are an integral part of the center, allowing it to uphold its mission statement that no one should have to face cancer alone.

“Many of these selfless acts provide a sense of community support and it’s something very tangible and people feel it,” Riter said, adding that the volunteers give quietly, but their gifts have “such a profound impact on the people that we serve.”

Marian Mumford, a social worker with a counseling practice in Ithaca, took pottery lessons for many years from her friend, Marjory Martin, a client at CRC who died of ovarian cancer in October 2015.

Months after Martin’s death, Mumford began making mugs for patients at CRC and found the process both fulfilling and therapeutic. As she creates the mugs, Mumford recalls the lessons of her instructor and friend.

“I can hear a voice in my head like, ‘slow that wheel down’ or, ‘you’ve got to watch that edge,’ that sort of thing,” Mumford said. “It was comforting to have her presence with me during this project.”

Mumford donated about 20 mugs to the center over the summer and plans to provide soup bowls for the winter months.

For patients who need to travel to New York City, often for second opinions or specialized treatment, Cornell University’s Campus-to-Campus bus service has provided free rides to CRC clients since 2010, Riter said.

“It makes the trip to New York City so easy because a lot of people will leave on the 6 a.m. bus, go into the city, have the appointment, and be back in Ithaca by the evening,” Riter said. “It’s such a wonderful service. I remember one patient told me that getting that free bus ride to New York City was the first nice thing to happen to her since her diagnosis.”

Aafke Steenhuis, who used to be a client at CRC, began knitting socks for women about five years ago when she was diagnosed with cancer. She gives the socks to patients who go through chemotherapy, a side effect of which is neuropathy, causing sensitivity or numbness in people’s feet.

“These socks will keep their feet warm and they’re fun — they usually have fun stripes,” Steenhuis said. “I even gave my doctor socks.”

Steenhuis then began working with the Tompkins County Quilter’s Guild and Quilter’s Corner in Ithaca to expand her project by providing cancer patients with bags. So far, the collaboration has created 250 bags, which CRC gives to people going through chemotherapy.

MadelineYoung, who owns and manages the Inn on Columbia in Ithaca, has been providing baked goods and desserts to CRC’s Friday support group every week for more than five years.

“I originally was maintaining [CRC’s] gardens, but I am terrible at gardening,” Young said. “Their gardens now look better for me not being there.”

She now bakes treats and other goods on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning and Young’s husband, Kenn, has assumed the role of “main delivery person,” bringing them CRC in time for the meeting.

“Ithaca is such a close-knit, interconnected, giving community,” Young said. “Through that, we’ve met other people who are doing the same thing.”

Many of the volunteers have never met each other, and may not even know that the others exist, but each reached out because of a shared, selfless desire to help others.

Elissa Rendzia and Mark Gardner, a couple that moved from Ithaca to Colorado and rents out two houses on the Cayuga Lake waterfront, reached out to CRC after discovering they had quite a few vacancies in the fall months, asking if any patients could use a free, peaceful getaway.

“Growing up, my father was an oncological breast surgeon,” Gardner said. “So the impact of cancer has been something that has always been present in my family. …So we had the opportunity, we had the space, and it started out as one thing and it’s kind of evolving into another.”

Recently, CRC’s young-adult group was able to spend time at one of the houses, and Gardner and Rendzia are trying to fill other open dates with groups who would like to spend some time on the waterfront.

“The lake and the house are really a place of peace and calm and one of those getaways where you can just get away from the world,” Rendzia said.

“It’s quintessential Ithaca,” Gardner added. “There’s something so special about Ithaca — there’s an energy that’s there and we feel grateful to be a part of it. We’re going to continue doing this for as long as we can.”

Seven years ago, Roger, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used, moved to upstate New York and was preparing to trade in his old truck for a new one when he realized his truck, still in good condition, could go to better use if it was given to someone who needed it.

Roger, who said his company works with cancer researchers, contacted CRC, and the center mentioned a family that regularly traveled to Cayuga Medical Center for chemotherapy treatments and often had to jump-start their car in the hospital parking lot.

The truck donation initiated an ongoing relationship between CRC and Roger, who began regularly donating gift cards to the center, allowing two couples to enjoy a night out at the Boatyard Grill.

Every now and then, for years, Roger has emailed Riter, asking, “Do you have anyone taking on water right now?”

If Riter notices a couple having an especially difficult time coping, he’ll slide them one of the gift cards Roger donates.

Every year at Thanksgiving, Roger makes paid reservations for two couples at the Taughannock Farms Inn, and Riter passes the gift along to two CRC patients and their partner or friend.

“When you think of people who have these incredible diseases, and life has really hit them between the eyes, all of a sudden you’re a patient — you’re somebody who has to be taken care of — and then for one night you’re back to normal and that’s the gift that you hope you’re providing somebody,” Roger said.

“For one night, we’re not going to treat you like a patient, we’re going to treat you like one of the best citizens in Ithaca,” he said. “Choose the wine and the sky’s the limit.”

(Photo: Casey Martin)


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