A Linguistic Discovery Helping Cancer Patients

Very few people know that the word “gilda” is actually derived from the ancient Latin term for “volunteer.”  And if you read that with any skepticism, it’s only because you’ve never been to the free cancer-support home called Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.  This 12-year old welcoming place for anyone dealing with cancer could not be there for all the 10,000 people it serves every year without Gilda’s volunteers.

The children, adults, family, and friends who come through Gilda’s distinct red door soon find themselves embraced, supported, and entertained by red-shirted men and women volunteers. They offer more than compassion; they also offer empathy because most of them have walked themselves or along side a loved one in the moccasins of cancer.

But it’s not enough that these devoted volunteers give their time at Gilda’s Club pouring coffee, playing with children, joining discussion groups, and simply holding a hand.  When Gilda’s puts on an outside  fundraiser to keep that red door wide open, the volunteers sign up in droves.

The late summer 2012 golf outing at Thousand Oaks Country Club was a case in point.  Despite the 90-degree heat, Gilda’s volunteers spent a long afternoon happily greeting golfers at each hole with food, beverages, and gifts.  They were smiling because they knew what they were doing. They were making sure other families like theirs will be able to walk through the open and free red door when one of their own is told, “You have cancer.”

It is true that Gilda Radner, the comic genius who died of cancer in 1989, was the inspiration for the Gilda’s support clubs around the country. But it’s also possible that her parents knew ancient Latin.

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Gilda’s Club Planning LaughFest 2012

The overwhelming success of Gilda Club’s first LaughFest in March 2011 meant for sure the cancer-support group would do it again. With 55,000 people attending last year’s ten-day marathon of funny people on stage, Gilda’s Club leaders knew they had a good thing going. Even more important, the original LaughFest raised $330,000 to help fund West Michigan’s three Gilda’s Clubs in Grand Rapids, Lowell, and Holland.

When Gilda Radner, Saturday Night Live’s beloved comedian, died in 1989, her family and friends honored her by starting clubs around the country where cancer patients and families could gather in community. Three Grand Rapids cancer survivors – Twink Frey, Deb Bailey, and Susan Smith – decided their city needed a Gilda’s Club too.

Their organizing energy led to Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids opening its signature red door in 2001. Peter Wege, whose mother and father had died of cancer, joined these women’s cause with a major capital gift. The Wege Foundation has continued to be a strong supporter of Gilda’s.

Ticket information about LaughFest’s March 8-18, 2012, lineup is available at laughfestgr.org/. Big names like Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Nealon, and Martin Short headline the 60-person cast performing in 200 different locations – half of them free to the public. This year Gilda’s Club has scheduled even more family-friendly entertainers than they had last March.

GILDA’S CLUB TEN YEARS LATER – on youtube.com.

When Peter M. Wege and The Wege Foundation made the lead gift to found the cancer-support community known as Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, Peter knew it was a good idea. Because both his parents had died of cancer, he knew that families of cancer patients need their own support network. But along with the other visionary thinkers who founded Gilda’s, Peter Wege had no idea it would become the overwhelming success it has in just ten years.

The busiest Gilda’s in the country with a schedule resembling a college catalogue, the founders’ dream to embrace all cancer patients and all the people who love them has happily come true. And, as you’ll see in this short video, “happy” and “smiling” and “laughing” are what the Grand Rapids’ Gilda’s is all about.

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Gilda’s Club is named in honor of Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Gilda dreamed that all people affected by cancer, as well as their families and friends, would have access to the same kind of emotional and social support that she received during her illness.

The club’s namesake Gilda Radner was the darling of America’s comedians until the day she died of cancer. Any legacy named for her simply had to be funny. And so Gilda’s in Grand Rapids makes sure that happens.


GildasignElizabeth Edwards met with members of The Wege Foundation, Ellen Satterlee, Executive Director on the left and Terri McCarthy, VP of Programs on the right, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on September 22, 2007. This private, non-media event was held at a most appropriate site: Gilda’s House Grand Rapids, a cancer-support home. Created in memory of comedienne Gilda Radner, the 20 Gilda’s Clubs around the country are places where cancer patients and their families gather for support, education, fellowship, and fun.

Elizabeth Edwards has breast cancer, first diagnosed in 2004. In March 2007, her husband and she announced on national TV that her cancer had returned. They both spoke about their mutual decision that he would stay in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Gilda’s House holds special significance for Peter Wege and The Wege Foundation as well. Both Peter’s parents Sophia Louise and Peter Martin Wege died of cancer. Their only child, Peter M. Wege made his first of many donations to cancer causes when he was flying airplanes in World War II. The women who started Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids in 1998 are the first to tell you that Peter Wege’s generous support has been pivotal to their Club’s becoming the busiest and most successful one in the United States.

When Elizabeth Edwards arrived at Gilda’s Grand Rapids, she was greeted by group of red-coated—for Gilda’s signature red doors—volunteers holding signs of welcome and praise. Elizabeth Edwards wept as she greeted each volunteer, most of them fellow cancer patients. “In all my travels,” she told them, “I have never been greeted like this.”

Speaking to a small gathering, including Gilda’s Club board members, the articulate Elizabeth talked openly about facing this new bout with cancer. She also spoke about the day her sixteen-year old son Wade was killed when his car got thrown off the road in a freak wind tunnel. A highly respected attorney herself, Elizabeth Edwards made no political comments at all. She talked about her husband only briefly when she was asked how he is handling her diagnosis.

This petite woman, who looks people straight in the eye, captured the small audience with her naturalness, sincerity, and personal outreach to her fellow cancer sufferers. Elizabeth Edwards was awed by the red-doored home on Bridge Street and all that Gilda’s Grand Rapids is doing for families with cancer. She took time before she left to sign copies of her new book with its self-defining title, Saving Graces: Finding Solace & Strength from Friends and Strangers.