Posts Tagged ‘The Face of America’

The John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation

Monday, February 13th, 2017

America at Its Best: The John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation

Written by Tony Mussari, Sr.
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Copyright 2017
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project

Work and live to serve others, to leave the world a little better than you found it and garner for yourself as much peace of mind as you can. This is happiness. David Sarnoff

Actions, Attitudes and Words Matter

When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.Maya Angelou

In 2010, my wife and I began our Face of America project. In phase one, we traveled the length and breadth of the continental United States searching for examples of the Face of America on its best day. We drove more than 30,000 miles. We recorded more than 110 hours of video footage. We took 57,000 digital pictures, and we interviewed 400 people all in the span of about 100 days. During the years that followed, we continued our search for examples of America At Its Best.

In our opinion, the Face of America belongs to people who give service to others by doing acts of kindness that give people hope and a belief that tomorrow can and will be better than today. 

The face of America belongs to people who want to give something of themselves to their country, their community and their world, people who never let adversity define who they are.

As we approach the seventh anniversary of our final project, we found a classic example of America At Its Best at the John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation just 11 miles from our home.

This word cloud is our attempt to capture the spirit of this very special place and the people who work there.


The classic definition of thoughtfulness is showing consideration for the needs of others.

Thoughtfulness is the hallmark of every person who works at the John Heinz Institute in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Every day, the therapists and members of the staff work with people who are experiencing great challenges. They become a bridge of hope for the patients they serve, their caregivers and family members. That bridge is deeply rooted in thoughtfulness.

An Irish proverb best describes the thoughtfulness one discovers at the John Heinz Institute:

It is in the shelter of each other that people live.


Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have. Margaret Mead

My wife and I have been in the medical system for several years. We have experienced the challenges that come with a diagnosis heart disease and breast cancer. Recently, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. All three of these health problems have reinforced a basic fact of life. Before you can completely heal the patient, your actions and words must convince them that you care about them and their situation.

An adaptation of the words of the celebrated author and teacher Leo Buscaglia will accurately put this quality in focus:

At the John Heinz Institute they never underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, because they know all of these qualities have the potential to turn a life around.


There is no substitute for competence. Ayn Rand

Competence is the ability to do something well.

Mark Twain added an important refinement when he wrote these famous words about competence in his Notebook:

Obscurity and a competence-that is the life that is best worth living.

These thirteen words written by an American genius were designed to highlight two important points. It’s not about fame. It’s about doing your best.

The people who offer their services at the John Heinz Institute are not interested in acclaim. They are interested in positive outcomes for their patients.

Thank you, Flo Kohar for conducting the Video Swallow Test in a competent and caring way.


The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others. Albert Schweitzer

Researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley define compassion as “suffering together.” Compassionate people identify with the suffering of others. They actually feel the pain of the person who is struggling with a medical challenge.

During his tenure, the Chief Executive Officer of the Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, Dr. Steven L. Strongwater, made it very clear that compassionate care is integral to the art of healing.

Toward this end:

Patients and family members are treated with respect;

Healthcare providers communicate and share complete and unbiased information with patients and families in ways that support them and are useful;

Patients and families are encouraged and supported in participating in care and decision-making at the level they choose;

Collaboration among patients, family members, and providers occurs in policy and program development and professional education, as well as the delivery of care.

When it comes to sensitive, warm, loving care, the therapists at the John Heinz Institute meet the Strongwater standard as described by Thomas Merton:

The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.     


…accommodation is a gratifying choice.  Sylvia Boorstein

Accommodating people are eager to help someone with a problem. They do it in a friendly way.

Salvador Minuchin is a respected family therapist. He called accommodation one of the silent songs of life without which life is impossible. Sylvia Boorstein teaches at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. She believes that accommodation is a gratifying choice.

According to Dr. Minuchin, the the road to accommodation is paved with tolerance, support, and flexibility. These are fundamental family values. It should come as no surprise that all the members of the John Heinz family go out of their way to accommodate the patients, family members and caregivers who depend upon the services and programs offered at the center.

Thank You, Theresa Yaron for all that you do to accommodate the needs of patients.


Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. Author Unknown

When I think about encouragement, the image that always comes to mind is the iconic World War II image of Rosie the Riveter flexing her muscles under the slogan “We can do it.” It’s all there.

Epictetus, an ancient philosopher and author of The Art of Living, gave us the essence of encouragement in one sentence:

The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.

He provided an accurate description of the encouraging people who work at the Heinz Institute when he advised his readers with this profound statement:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.


I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. C.G. Jung

The founder of analytical psychology also gave us this insight:

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.

Just being in the Heinz Rehabilitation Center is a transformational experience. In my two months of rehab, I have met more heroines and heroes than I have seen in a lifetime. They are young and old, rich and poor. They represent a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common. They have hope that they can improve their circumstance.

Working with their therapist, they are determined to give their best effort to overcome the challenges they face. They want to walk again, speak again, and work again. They want to have a normal life again.

There is genuine sense of community in this life-changing place.


True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. C.S. Lewis

On September 20, 2013, my wife and I attended a Town Hall Forum at the Medal of Honor Convention in Gettysburg. We were there to produce a documentary about the convention. Approximately 300 attended the Town Hall Forum, and one of the most memorable moments happened when Medal of Honor recipient Sal Giunta was asked why he did what he did and what was going through his mind when he did it.

Giunta surprised everyone in the room with his answer.

I did what I did because everyone else was doing the same thing. There’s no room or time to think about you, because you don’t matter. We matter, and it has nothing to do with you as an individual. I never once led. I always stood side by side to my brothers. My first thought was to my boys….

I will never forget that moment and those words. In my mind, they constitute one of the best definitions of selfless humility and service I have ever heard.

Fast forward three years and two months, and I am watching Sal Giunta’s words play out in a totally different setting. There are no video production crews or journalists. There is room filled with therapists and their patients. Every one of them was doing the same thing. They were standing side by side with their patients, offering encouragement and hope. Their first thought and all the thoughts that followed were about helping their patients.

In the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson, gave an excellent insight into the importance of humility:

There are two things that men should never weary of, goodness and humility; we get none too much of them in this rough world among cold, proud people…

If you want to find powerful examples of goodness and humility visit the John Heinz Rehabilitation Center. There are no cold, proud people there.


The heart is happiest when it beats for others. Author Unknown

A heartfelt person is a sincere person.

John O’Donohue believes that a loving heart awakens the spirit to possibilities and engagement with others.

That’s the spirit I experience every time I enter the John Heinz Institute. To be honest, I try to arrive 15 minutes early for my appointment so I can sit in the waiting area and experience the heartfelt engagement between the patients and their therapists. It is polite, earnest and professional.


The optimists…tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case. Dr. Martin Seligman

Dr. Martin Seligman is the father of Positive Psychology He believes that a pleasant manner is the first step on the road to success. He is founder of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His research uncovered five elements for a happy life: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment /Achievement.

I can honestly say that I experience all of the elements of Dr. Seligman’s PERMA model at the John Heinz Rehabilitation Center.

An adaptation of Dr. Seligman’s words applies to all the therapists at the Heinz Institute and in particular my speech therapist, Joanne Orlando:

They use their strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than who they are.


Great men show politeness in a particular way; a smile suffices to assure you that you are welcome…as if you were a member of the family. John James Audubon

Thank you, Mark Miller for making the effort to welcome in a polite and friendly way every patient and family member who visits the John Heinz Institute in Wilkes-Barre. Your kind words and actions make the rehabilitation center something that I look forward to every week.


Kind actions begin with kind thoughts. Author Unknown

Kindness is a human value that is action-oriented. A kind person wants to help people who are suffering.

Dr. Stephen G. Post is a professor of Preventative Medicine at Stony Brook University. He is the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics. He is the author of Why Good Things Happen To Good People and The Hidden Gifts of Helping.

When he was asked to provide characteristics that are central to America on its best day, Dr. Post was quick to respond with six qualities: gratitude, hope, joy, compassion, generosity and loving kindness, a concept that is deeply rooted in the Mussar tradition.

I believe the spirit of kindness permeates everything that happens at the Heinz Institute. All of the members of the staff want to help the patients they encounter.

My speech therapist, Joanne Orlando, is always looking for ways to resolve my problem. She reflects the light and the spirit of kindness.

When Mark Twain wrote these words, he provided a great insight into this life-changing value:

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.


Garner up pleasant thoughts in your mind, for pleasant thoughts make pleasant lives. John Wilkins, 17th century English clergyman

Thank you, Nicole Pelosi for your warm and friendly greetings when you pass me in the waiting area. Your engaging smile lifts my spirits every time you ask, “How are you doing today?”

If I were an artist painting a portrait of the people who staff the John Heinz Rehabilitation Institute, their faces would radiate vivid images of hope, love, joy, faith, courage, creativity, community, and nobility of purpose.

Thank You

Mark Miller

Theresa Yaron

Joanne Orlando

Flo Kohar

Nicole Pelosi

Thank you to all the men and women who work at the John Heinz Institute of Rehabilitation.

You are America at its very best.

The picture of Rosie the Riveter is part
of the collection at the National Museum
of American History in Washington, D.C.

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Gettysburg Gifts: Part 4, Bonnie & Frank Orlando

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Gettysburg Gifts, Part 4, Bonnie & Frank Orlando

Written by Kitch & Tony Mussari
Edited by Kitch Loftus-Mussari
Photographs by: Tony & kitch Mussari
Copyright 2013, Face of America Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD

What a cruel thing war is to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors. General Robert E. Lee

The Civil War arrived at the door of Gettysburg onlee_349 July 1, 1863, when General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into town and set up camp.

Three days later he was forced to retreat, leaving a large contingent, thirty percent, of his soldiers either dead, dying, seriously injured or captured.

Lee is not an historical figure we talk about much in the North. That is unfortunate. If, however, you are walking the streets of Gettysburg during the 150th anniversary of the battle or attending a function in town, he may become the focus of your attention.

A double-take is in order when you see him and his wife, Ann Custis Lee, walking about and nodding to all they see.  Lee’s uniform is just like the one we BF3_7985_250have seen in historical photographs. Mrs. Lee wears a dress similar to the ones we remember from “Gone With The Wind:” six layers of clothing covered by a magnificent silk moire dress, ear bobs, hair caught up in a net topped by an elegant hat carrying a parasol or a cane.

The famous general and his wife are the creation of Frank and Bonnie Orlando who came to Gettysburg when the retired from their careers in education. They are called upon to perform in many venues, and they are exceptional at what they do. They are living breathing experts on the Lees.  They have read extensively-not only the books written but journals, letters, and family histories. This research brings a depth of knowledge and understanding to their performance.

The ten students in our documentary and everyone inBF4_7985_250 our production crew can give testimony to the many important lessons they teach when given the opportunity to recount the wit, wisdom and insight of the General and his lady.

There is another side to the Orlandos that Kitch and I were privileged to see. They are wonderful people with caring hearts and willingness to help others. From the moment our eyes met, we became fast friends. We recognized their talent, expertise and noble purpose. They believed in our work, and the enormous obstacles we faced in realizing our dream to produce Walking Into The Light At Gettysburg.

During the past nine months we have rendezvoused several times with Bonnie and Frank for coffee, for dinner, for dessert. They opened many doors for us. They BF_7985_250encouraged us and they helped us navigate the bumps in the road during our journey to the screening and the banquet.

Every encounter was joyful and pleasant. Every one of the 185 e-mails we exchanged contained kind words of affirmation.

Every memory we have of Bonnie and Frank is positive. The last sentence in the note Frank sent to us the night after the screening and banquet says everything one needs to know about why Bonnie and Frank Orlando are Gettysburg Gifts to Kitch and me and two radiant Faces of America on its best day for everyone who visits Gettysburg:

"God speed, thank you for your gifts, and never forget that you possess one of the greatest gifts God ever bestowed upon mankind – true friends in Gettysburg, PA."

Thank You Bonnie and Frank for helping us make our dream become a reality.

Thank you for giving your time, effort and energy to teach young people like the students from North Plainfield what really matters in life.

Thank you for the priceless gift of friendship.

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A Priceless Moment at Wilkes University

Saturday, April 7th, 2012

Teaching the Greatness of America as an Experience, Part 1

Written by Tony Mussari
Copyright 2012
Mussari-Loftus Associates
The Face of America Project

Nine-tenths of education is encouragement.Anatole France

A Priceless Opportunity

Life is a series of opportunities. Sometimes we see them, and we act accordingly. Unfortunately, many times they go unnoticed, and we miss the moment.

On April 3, Kitch and I entered the Marts Center on the Wilkes University campus to make the most of an opportunity. This Face of America journey began in September 2011 when we received this note:

We read the piece about your film … and would love it if you could come to our campus and speak about your important work with our education students sometime during the spring semester… We believe that area artists and educational leaders in all fields can help us prepare our students to be the best teachers they can be; not all learning happens in the classroom, as you are well aware.

Thank you very much.
Judy and Bob Gardner

Judy and Bob Gardner are exemplary Faces of America on its best day. They are teachers with a purpose. They want their students to hear other voices in their classroom and have real world experiences outside the walls of ivy. Their expertise is experiential learning, and their gift to Wilkes University and the students they teach is the Gardner Educational Forum Series.

Our assignment was to help their students understand how documentary film can be used to take students to places where they can learn important life lessons.

The Challenge

How do you explain 47 years of work in 90 minutes? How do you make it interesting and meaningful to students who live in the digital suburbs of Facebook and Twitter? It took a lot of thought and two weeks of intense preparation to get it right. Ultimately, I followed the advice of my mother as recorded in an inspirational thought typed in bold black letters at the bottom of one of Judy Gardner’s notes:


Once I reached this conclusion, I felt a kind of freedom that is hard to explain, but wonderful to experience.

Kitch did not want the stress that comes with a presentation of this magnitude, so I did the heavy lifting.

My strategy was simple. I would do what I did in my classroom. Thinking of it as just another class in a much different forum, freed me from the restraints that fear and worry impose on speakers. I would use examples from our 2005 Miracle at Lake Placid Project and three others: What is America? (2001-2011), The Face of America (2010) and Gettysburg (2012).

In my mind’s eye, Coach Herb Brooks and his team of lunch pail college kids is a classic example of American greatness, and our Miracle Project was a textbook case of experiential learning. It enabled 20 seniors to learn about the legendary coach, his philosophy, his team and their unprecedented victory over the Russians in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

Three trips to Lake Placid, New York, during the 25th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice provided students with an opportunity to connect with the place and the people who made the victory over the best hockey team on the planet happen. We attended the relighting of the Olympic Flame, the Mirror Lake party and the rededication of the1980 rink. From our classroom, students conducted interviews via conference calls with Patti Brooks, her children Kelly and Danny, Ross Bernstein, author of Remembering Herbie, and Wayne Coffee, author of The Boys of Winter.

We assembled a team of consultants including Julie Marvel, a University of Minnesota graduate and an accomplished athlete and public relations professional, songwriter Mike Lewis, graphic designers D.J. Pizzani and Colleen Connelly, and voiceover specialist Greg O’Brien. Their unique contributions added a special dimension to this experience.

The final episode in our What is America? Series, Shanksville, PA: A Place of Transformation, gave a voice to 11 cheerleaders from North Plainfield, New Jersey, who visited the Peoples’ Memorial to the Heroes of Flight 93 in 2010 and 2011 with us. Each one of these students had a story to tell about life and learning outside the classroom. These students and their coach, Skip Pulcrano, opened the door to the North Plainfield School District for us.

The Face of America project is the link to the Gettysburg National Military Park and two people who I believed were essential to the lecture: 2d Lt. Emily Perez and Barbara Platt. Both Barbara and Emily are inspirational women of dignity, class, courage and service. They speak to the greatness of America in quiet acts of kindness and putting the greater good before their personal interests. Emily Perez is the inspiration for our Face of America project. Barbara is the inspiration for our Gettysburg project.

My close and life-changing encounter with the movie To Sir With Love in 1967 provided an ideal way to begin the presentation. Sidney Poitier’s powerful portrayal of interim teacher Mark Thackeray is a textbook example of experiential learning. His decision to treat the students in his English class like adults and teach them survival skills by taking them out of the classroom provided the context I needed to frame my Gardner lecture.


While designing my PowerPoint presentation, I received help from several members of our 2005 Miracle team: Rob Anderson, Chris Boos, Ryan Doyle, Matt Harm, Stephanie Youngs, Karlina Zikor and D.J.Pizzani.

D.J. was not a member of the class. He was doing an internship in New Jersey, but he volunteered to help us. He designed the collage for the project, and all of the cover designs for our year-end events. This is an excerpt from his evaluation of the experience:

“It was incredibly beneficial to learn from Herb Brooks and his 1980 Olympic Team. Something you taught me, Doc, and came out of your course and this project is: If it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

Ryan Doyle offered this discovery:

“I learned that life is about making good stories, sometimes even out of the worst situations. Be honest, be humble, work hard and above all don’t be afraid of the world, make an adventure out of it.”

Stephanie Youngs was very specific about her take away memory: “One thing I learned for sure is that nothing comes your way without any work involved!”

The lesson Christopher Boos learned from the Miracle team was personal and powerful:

“The triumph was a result of believing they could succeed, and then making it happen. Keeping that message in mind has given me the strength and courage to face numerous, obstacles…”

Rob Anderson learned three things during the Miracle Project: “The course taught me to keep focused, hard work pays off, never feel defeated.”

Matt Harm liked the Mark Thackeray tone of the course: “We were treated as students, but we were also treated as professionals.”

When it was finished, the PowerPoint presentation had 100 slides with 10 collages, 14 graphics and 144 pictures. Cartier Scott, an affable Wilkes University student, volunteered to help set up the computer for the presentation. He and Dr. Bob Gardner made sure everything worked perfectly.

A last minute decision to wear the USA Olympic jersey the students in my 2005 class gave me as a gift helped to reinforce the power of creative dreaming. Bob Kalinowski noted that moment in a comment he wrote after the presentation. “Right from the beginning, I was captivated and beamed with pride when you put on the USA jersey.”


The Miracle at Lake Placid resonated with Virginia and John Zikor. They lived it as parents. Their daughter, Karlina, lived it as a student in the class. This is what Karlina wrote about her experience:

Learning about Herb Brooks and the 1980 Olympic Team made me realize that through hard work, dedication and team work anything is possible. The values that I learned from that team, project and class will continue to stay with me. I hope one day into the future, to eventually pass on what I learned from that class to my children.

The references to the movie To Sir With Love worked for Gerry O’Donnell. “To Sir With Love was in my mind one of the best movies ever,” he wrote, “both from the acting standpoint but more importantly from the life lessons it taught… if you reached only 25% of the teachers in the room it will make this valley a better place!”

Sean McGrath liked the naturalization scenes included in the documentary Shanksville, Pa: A Place of Transformation. “I particularly thought about those people getting their citizenship. They beamed with glory – unlike the majority of Americans who were fortunate to be born American and miss the entire point!”

Skip Pulcrano, the coach of the cheerleading squad at North Plainfield High School, drove from New Jersey, to attend the lecture. He had several things to say about the presentation:

It was my pleasure to be there for such a great presentation. This was the first time I could actually just sit there and absorb and enjoy the moment.

I sincerely hope that all those in attendance, especially the young student teachers, adopt your words of truth and dignity, honestly spoken, and implement them into actions.

I think your presentation should be delivered to the entire faculty of the North Plainfield School District. We are always having teacher workshop days and incorporating your presentation would be a tremendous burst of motivation.

Thanks again for everything you and Kitch have done for our students and for the gift of such a wonderful presentation yesterday. You have our everlasting gratitude.

Joanne Chabalko, is the mother of a West Point graduate and the woman who introduced us to Emily Perez. She offered kind words about the presentation:

“When you showed Emily, I wanted to cry. Your work is more important than ever. I pray that you continue to be blessed with good health so you can continue your passion.”

Our friend, Connie Wynn, attended the lecture with her husband Joe. They arrived early and they stayed late. Connie gave Kitch a beautiful bouquet of roses to celebrate her victory over breast cancer, and Joe snapped a number of digital pictures of the event. Connie’s words and Joe’s pictures lifted our spirits. Their comments validated all of the time and energy we invested in the event.

“You certainly blessed all of us yesterday with your beautiful presentation. You gave your presentation with love and compassion and it’s so hard to find people who are compassionate about their work. This shows in each and every documentary that you both do. Don’t ever stop teaching.”

Several times during the presentation, my eyes and my heart connected with four former students who were in the room: Laura Haden, Joe Haberski, Bob Kalinowski and Shivaun O’Donnell.

During the Q&A, an education major from Wilkes told everyone in the room about her life as an Upward Bound student. She was quick to point out why she could relate to everything in the presentation. For an old teacher like me, it doesn’t get any better than that.

We went to Wilkes University on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in April to deliver a lecture about experimental learning. We left the university with a wonderful portrait of America at its best.

It is a rich painting of young, aspiring teachers who were learning. It is a statement about experienced, compassionate and caring teachers like Judy and Bob Gardner who were teaching by example. It contains snapshots of a reunion with formers students like Laura, Bob, Shivaun and Joe, old friends like Connie, Joe, Virginia, John, Joanne and Gerry,heart relatives Anthony and Sean and new friends named Cartier, Jennifer, Kristen and Skip. They were there to encouraging an old teacher in a new classroom to do his best. Everyone was making the most of a priceless opportunity.

In room 214 on the second floor of the Marts Center, Kitch and I experienced the greatness of America. It is a moment from our Face of America journey that we will never forget.

Jason Genovese, one of our former students and now a college professor is right:

“Students become much more motivated and interested when they get invested in field-based projects…and that results in real learning.”

Mark Thackeray was right. Experiential learning at its best is teaching students how to be adults, and that includes teaching them courtesy, manners, standards and survival skills. It is encouraging them to reach up for the best edition of themselves.

Herb Brooks was right, “great moments are born from great opportunities.” That’s what we had on April 3, at Wilkes University.

Thank You, Judith,

Thank You, Bob,

Thank You, Friends, Former Students and Relatives,

Thank You, Wilkes University,

Thank You, America.

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Finding the Ecstasy in Life After the Agony of Cancer

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Three Cups of Tea at Candy’s Place

By Kitch & Tony Mussari
Copyright 2011
Mussari-Loftus Associates, LTD
The Face of America Project

Joy is not in things. It is in us. Richard Wagner

During our Face of America journey, Kitch and I survived a serious automobile accident in Minnesota, heat stroke in New Hampshire, road rage in Florida, a blizzard in Arizona, closed roads in Wyoming, and 3 computer meltdowns.

These are trivial events compared to what happened on December 9, 2010. On that day Kitch went for her annual mammogram. I was at home preparing for a screening of our documentary: Visiting Shanksville in the Rain. It was scheduled for December 10, in North Plainfield, New Jersey.

The telephone rang. The voice at the other end of the line cracked with emotion. I heard words that I never expected to hear. Kitch could not finish the call. That was done by the compassionate and competent voice of Dr. Dan Kopen.

Within minutes, I was in his office holding Kitch’s hand while Dr. Kopen explained the results of the mammogram and the need for a biopsy. In less than a week, we met with Dr. Kopen again.  This time he spoke three words that seared an indelible mark on my soul: “invasive ductal carcinoma.”

For the next 11 months, virtually all of our time, effort and energy was spent battling an adversary we could not see, hear, or feel.

Fast forward to the most beautiful Sunday of autumn, Kitch and I are making our way to the Grand Ballroom at the Woodlands Inn and Resort. We were welcomed graciously at the door by a board member and a volunteer from Candy’s Place. After a brief conversation we entered the ballroom. We were overwhelmed by what we saw.

Wherever we looked, someone dressed in something pink was smiling or laughing. People were engaged in good conversation. They were taking group pictures.  They were checking out the cornucopia of prizes donated by public spirited citizens to raise money for the one-on-one programs offered at the Center for Cancer Wellness.

Heather Gaydos, a high school student and volunteer, was selling homemade biscotti and cookies. Theresa Novak, the yoga instructor at Candy’s Place and two of her friends were carrying baskets filled with chocolate products courtesy of her store, Ah! Some Chocolates.

Penny Cunningham, the founder of Candy’s Place, was busy meeting and greeting people, and Nicole Farber, the center cirector, was attending to last minute details for the tea.

The atmosphere was welcoming and very festive.  The mood in the room was joyful, and the setting was beautiful in every respect of the word.

The beverage and sweets served at the tea were tastefully displayed and quickly removed by the room full of cancer survivors, family members and friends who came to show their support for Candy’s Place.

One by one, eight of these women walked to the podium in the front of the room to tell their stories about diagnosis, treatment and survival.

Rebecca Barrett was 37 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She asked the question, “What has the gift of cancer given me?”

Her answer; “It made my family stronger. It made me stronger, and it made me closer to my family.”

Mary Ann Meeker is an affable woman.  She likes to talk. In 1996, she was 57 and enjoying life. She had no family history of breast cancer. These are the words she used to describe her reaction to the news that she had breast cancer. “It hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Carol Marino is a strong woman with a good sense of humor. She talked about the dark time between diagnosis, surgery and recovery. Even though she has been cancer free for 17 years, it is still an emotional experience for her. She celebrated the services provided by Candy’s Place and the friends she made there.  She offered this piece of advice to those who will be diagnosed with cancers of any kind. “You have to believe in hope. When it might seem darkest, you have to have hope.”

Stacey Casey attended the event with her husband. She admitted that she is a newcomer to the long gravel road called cancer. She thanked her husband for his loyalty and support and she made it very clear that she is learning every day that support from family and friends is vital to recovery.

Rhonda Zikowski spoke with honesty about the fear that comes with cancer, and she thanked Christine Fazzi the personal trainer at Candy’s Place for making her feel stronger. With sincerity that touched the hearts of everyone in the room she paid Chris the ultimate compliment, “You are always kind, generous and there for me.”

Jean Connelly is a decorated veteran in the war against cancer. She has successfully defeated two different forms of cancer. Jean is a woman of infectious humor and great resolve. She spoke with authority when she shared these words, “When they throw the “C” word at you, it hits home and knocked the wind out of my sails.”

Thinking out loud about what she learned from her experience, Jean offered this insight;
“I am a blessed person, because cancer taught me how to live, not to wait to be happy. It taught me to be happy today.”

For Beth Miner, 2007 was an Annus Horribilis. Her 40-year-old niece died from breast cancer.  Her neighbor died from breast cancer, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Beth had a very difficult time with chemotherapy, and she could not finish the infusion treatments, but fortunately things worked out well for her and her family.  Today she is a volunteer at Candy’s Place and a woman who has a special gift when working with other survivors.  Maybe that’s because when people walk through the door to Candy’s Place, Beth sees a mirror image of herself.

In Beth’s words, “When I meet a cancer survivor for the first time the feelings come back to me.  I don’t know why I am here, but I am standing strong.”

Mary Ann Gap was the last speaker. She is a positive and determined woman. Her story speaks to the heart and soul of Candy’s Place. When she was diagnosed at 50, she was alone.  Her family and friends lived out of state. She did not drive, and she was struggling.

Her radiation oncologist, Dr. Norman Schulman, connected her with Candy’s Place. When she made her first visit, Nicole Farber greeted her with a smile.  She arranged to have Denise Fried make a weekly call to Mary Ann. This call gave Mary Ann the gift of connection, and it helped her make a successful recovery.

Listening to these women and thinking about Kitch’s experience in her one-on-one yoga classes with Theresa Novak, makes it very clear to me that cancer is a vicious disease that can be beaten if detected early. But it takes a family to overcome the fears and the scars that come with the treatment and cure.

In my opinion, if you’re looking for love, go to Candy’s Place. If you’re looking for compassion, go to Candy’s Place, if you’re looking for understanding, go to Candy’s Place. At Candy’s Place you are family.

It was inspiring to be in the presence of a room full of heroines. No matter where you looked in the Grand Ballroom, you saw a heartwarming, thought provoking scene.  The words of Emily Dickinson took on new meaning for me, because these women had found ecstasy in life. For them, the mere sense of living was joy enough.

In a way, Kitch and I were having our third cup of tea at Candy’s Place. We were no longer strangers, or casual friends. Like everyone in the room, we were family, and it felt wonderful.

The moment Penny Cunningham won the door prize added to our delight. What a fitting and serendipitous end to a memorable afternoon.

It doesn’t get any better than an afternoon of pink tea at Candy’s Place.

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