Gilda Would’ve Laughed

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It’s National Volunteer Week and few groups have a better excuse to celebrate than Gilda’s Club Seattle.

One of 28 groups nationwide, the club takes its name from the late Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner. After Radner contracted ovarian cancer, she was helped by friends. Her wish was that people everywhere could enjoy such support.

Although Gilda’s Club Seattle maintains a hard-working core staff, much of the support work –  hosting support sessions, teaching yoga, art, cooking and exercise – is done by dedicated volunteers.

Sunday afternoon, Executive Director Anna Gottlieb handed out more than a dozen “we couldn’t do it without you” awards recognizing the service of those volunteers. The large audience was seated in the comfortable mismatched easy chairs and sofas that occupy the salon of the 1911 colonial style building, a former funeral home at the corner of Broadway and East Union.

gildasclubGilda’s Club has no membership fee and all programs are free to its many thousand  members.  The no-fee financial miracle is made possible by fundraising events, individual donations and grants.  Still, the club had to cut back during the recession years, dropping some programs and cutting staff hours. More than ever, the club relied in those willing volunteers

Take the husband and wife team (John and Velerie Backus) who volunteered to help with the annual essay contest. Little did they know what lay ahead. Last year, more than a thousand youngsters submitted “It’s Always Something” stories about their families’ experiences with cancer. Imagine the dedication of reading through all those poignant tales to honor teens with scholarship awards.

Or there’s my friend and former Seattle Times co-worker Terry Tazioli who has long been a volunteer at Gilda’s Club. After his late sister Kai Leamer contracted breast cancer, he became a regular at the club. Terry raises money for scholarships awarded in her name. But, more than that, he — like many of the volunteers — enlists friends, co-workers and associates to help with Gilda’s programs.

The club’s website, tended, not so incidentally, by Jerry Liebermann, who came to the Club after years of dealing with leukemia, credits director Anna Gottlieb for founding Gilda’s Club Seattle.

gilda3The way Gottlieb tells it, she spotted an article in People Magazine 15 years ago, while waiting for a friend at her doctor’s appointment.  She says, “It was almost as if a light bulb went off in my head.” She flew to New York to see the first Gilda’s Club and returned in awe, thinking “how hard can it be?”

As she now says, “It’s a good thing I didn’t know.”  The fact that Gilda’s Club has survived and made a difference in so many lives is due to her hard work, the work of the enthusiastic staff and those many volunteers. As Gottlieb says, “We really can and do make a difference. Our members tell us so every day.”