Meet the Lady Whose Idea Helped 20,000 People Affected by Cancer

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Founder and Executive Director- The Gathering Place

Eileen SaffranThe Gathering Place is the realization of a dream for Featured Lady Eileen Saffran, LISW-S. In over two decades as a clinical social worker facing the constraints of health care, she envisioned a place for people touched by cancer to find the services and resources they needed integrated with their medical care and focused on enhancing quality of life with dignity and hope. Through a grassroots movement, Eileen followed her vision to launch Cleveland’s The Gathering Place, a community of sharing and support that promotes healing and wellness – all free of charge. Since its inception in 1999, The Gathering Place has helped over 20,000 people, which translates into more than 115,000 visits. A new member of the prestigious Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, Eileen is also a speaker at the Ladies Who Launch Global Conference in Cleveland on November 8 – 9, 2010.

Immersed in the big business of medical care since beginning her career in the mid-1970s as a social worker for psychiatric and oncology patients, Eileen knew the non-revenue aspects of the industry were disappearing; specifically, support and education services. “In my role, I kept finding it difficult to develop support relationships due to cuts in those programs,” she says.

Paralleling her professional perspective, Eileen personally encountered the health care system’s realities because she knew many women affected by breast cancer. Eileen’s parents also received cancer diagnoses within six months of each other and passed away three and a half years apart. Eileen, who was fortunate to find the resources she needed through her job, recognized a lot of critically important information was missing. “Based on the experience I had, I knew there were gaps in my journey.”

In 1999, with her daughter in college, her son beginning to drive and her husband traveling, Eileen set out to change her career path, do something that would allow her to help others and experience something different each day. In other words, make her dream of The Gathering Place – a reality. “It blossomed through my contacts,” she says. “The cancer experience touches us all and by pulling together as a caring community and family, we enhance learning, comfort and healing.”

The Gathering Place“The grass roots effort was remarkable. I spoke to anyone who’d open their door to me and invited them to join us,” says Eileen. “Cleveland is an incredibly philanthropic community, I can’t emphasize that enough. From generous financial donations to fabulous in-kind support, people invested in me and my idea.”

For its first three and a half years, The Gathering Place’s home was a 6,100 square foot rented space on Cleveland’s east side. Thanks to a capital campaign that gave the organization financial momentum, The Gathering Place was able to purchase a building and moved to a 12,000 square foot facility in Beachwood. The new location, with a healing garden occupying its third of an acre, enabled The Gathering Place to increase services and help more people. In 2008, a second location was opened in Westlake, on the opposite side of Cleveland, to serve individuals across the river.

The biggest challenge Eileen has faced is maintaining an organization in these economic times that is 100% privately funded. “Eighty cents of every dollar goes to programming. We’re about helping people and work with a slim margin,” she says. “We don’t get any government funding or reimbursements through insurance. Our services are all free. We raise all the money we spend.”

Eileen believes that The Gathering Place is a phenomenal example of a thriving non-profit organization. “We employed sound business principles since the opening, which led us to a strong financial position,” she says. “For any business, large or small, for profit or non-profit, transparency is crucial. Our stakeholders always knew where the money was being spent.”

Eileen says one of her best moments with The Gathering Place was being accepted as a member of the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center earlier this year. “This was huge! As a result, The Gathering Place has been legitimized in the eyes of top cancer researchers. I have the utmost respect for these people.”

She also has tremendous respect for those people who handle the increasing volume of people needing The Gathering Place’s support and services, including its crème de la crème staff of nineteen, fifteen contract professionals, active Board of Directors and 400 dedicated volunteers.

“What I’ve learned from launching The Gathering Place is that people really want to do good and help others,” says Eileen. “Especially if they’ve been touched by cancer.”

What we learned from Eileen:
“When launching an idea, build understanding with people in the trenches. Start at the bottom and work your way up.”

The Ol’ Two Step
“Remember that being an entrepreneur is three steps forward and two steps back.”

Outside the Box
“I’ve never been a square peg in a square hole. I’m an independent thinker. Some entrepreneurial qualities have always been a part of me.”

Remain Open
“Always err on the side of inclusivity. Don’t judge a person by what you see, get to know them.”

This Featured Lady was profiled by Megan L. Reese, WORDrobe® Stylist for Her Write Image in West Grove, PA.

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Susan Gregg Koger