When Wellness House President and CEO Jeannie Cella was 22, she received devastating news. Her mother had been diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. “She was diagnosed in June and died in the following January,” says Cella. “It was completely life-changing.”
Several years later, Cella happened upon a national organization called The Wellness Community, which offered programs to those affected by cancer. “I said to myself, ‘I wish I had something like this when my mom had cancer.’” Wanting to get involved, Cella reached out to the program director and completed a non-clinical internship in 1990. She was hired on in 1991 and has been a part of Wellness House ever since. “I have been here since the beginning and boy has it changed,” laughs Cella.
Wellness House in Hinsdale has been a long-standing beacon of hope for anyone facing cancer. Its serene setting and spacious interior is inviting to all who enter, especially for those dealing directly with the disease. “Our house simply draws you in,” says Cella.
Nestled on County Line Road just east of Hinsdale Hospital, Wellness House is available for people who are newly diagnosed—during and after treatment— and to family and caregivers. All programs are offered at no cost. Most importantly, Wellness House recognizes the importance of the psychosocial side effects of dealing with cancer, and therefore takes great strides in personalizing individual support.
Wellness House offers a wide array of evidence-based programs and provides useful information to participants. They cover Exercise and Nutrition, Stress Management, Child and Family Programs, Support Groups, Counseling, and more. Upon entering the house, directly to the right is a kitchen/multipurpose room where participants engage in various classes.
“We started as a much smaller house but we have added on to accommodate our growing programming. We use various rooms for multiple activities,” says Debra Kwiatt, marketing communications manager. “On the same day, we might hold a cooking class, a yoga class, and educational programming in one room. We have more than 300 programs a month.”
Each room in Wellness House is used for various purposes and everything from flute circles to arts and crafts is available. If activities don’t interest you, Wellness House can simply be used as a place to go for emotional support. On the main floor is located the Great Room where support groups often meet.
“We have so many support groups that are cancer-specific—anything from bladder to breast, brain to thyroid—all different types of cancer,” says Kwiatt. “We also provide Meaning-Centered Therapy that helps people with cancer understand the importance and relevance of sustaining, reconnecting with, and creating meaning in their lives. There are many program options available so people can choose what works best for them.”
Wellness House has a private resource library where books and pamphlets are available for participants to learn more about cancer and the latest treatments, or to view inspirational material. Outside the library is a courtyard where groups can meet in nice weather. In the basement, there is a Wig Boutique that doubles as a guided meditation area. Down the hall from that is the Kids Room. “We have support groups throughout the year and a Kid’s Kamp in the summer,” says Kwiatt. “Kids Kamp is fun and provides a safe environment to be with other kids going through the same thing.””
There is a fully equipped exercise area to help cancer patients rehabilitate during and after treatment. A side room off the exercise area is used for massage and Reiki treatments. All program staff at Wellness House are licensed or credentialed in their area of expertise. They have psychologists, cancer exercise specialists, child life specialists, and a registered dietitian. “It’s such a great combination of expertise and heart,” says Kwiatt.
Wellness House funds these life-changing programs through donations, grants, and two main fundraisers a year—a formal black tie ball in October and Walk for Wellness House the first Sunday in May. This year, on May 6, a 5K and 3K Fundraiser Walk will begin and end at Wellness House. “I love both fundraisers,” says Cella, “but the Walk is a ‘We the People’ event.”
Participants pay a fee to register then they send an email blast asking their network of people to join their fundraising teams. “Sponsorship and team fundraising is what gets us to our goal,” says Cella. On the morning of the event, walkers and runners meet at 8:30 a.m. at Wellness House and enjoy a pre-program of food, music and entertainment. “It’s a very family-friendly event,” says Cella. “We’ll have inspirational songs before the Walk begins to ritualize the launch of the walk/run.”
There is a Balloon Launch where people write the names of those affected by cancer on the balloons before releasing them into the air. There is also a Remembrance Wall where participants can write the names of loved ones before the Walk. Something new this year is that walkers and runners will have access to a timed-chip to track their run/walk times.
As part of the Walk on May 6, Wellness House will have a side event called the 10-Step Walk.
“It’s so special to watch because it’s for people who can’t walk the whole route, mostly due to side effects of cancer. It’s so meaningful to see them walk across the street because to them it’s a big accomplishment,” says Kwiatt. This year, the Hinsdale Fire Department will help hand out flowers at the 10-Step walk.
In June, Wellness House will offer special events including the Taste of Wellness House Nutrition Fair, Hot Topics in Breast Cancer, and a pediatric event entitled: GRACE—How a Childhood Cancer Survivor and Her Mother Navigated Illness and Recovery.
With the numerous advancements in cancer treatment, the diagnosis of cancer isn’t as bleak as it used to be and Wellness House recognizes the importance of maintaining a positive outlook. “There has been an explosion in cancer treatments,” says Cella. “In fact, there is a participant here who was diagnosed more than five years ago with the exact same cancer my mother had. He’s not only still living, but he’s doing really well.”
According to Cella, a lot of the people who gravitate towards Wellness House are those who are interested in taking back control of their health and well-being. “They come here and see what they can do to help them on their journey,” says Cella, “and we can help them see that the glass as half full.”
Wellness House has recently expanded to 14 other locations including Arlington Heights, Berwyn, Chicago, Elmhurst, Maywood, Palatine, and Oak Park. There is also another Wellness House Partner location in Hinsdale at the new Amita Health Cancer Institute. For more information, visit wellnesshouse.org.