Going Above and Beyond

Shining the spotlight on Chicago’s charitable organizations

By Megy Karydes

There is no shortage of nonprofit organizations doing great work in Chicago. For families dealt with a devastating blow like news that they have been diagnosed with cancer or they don’t have health insurance to cover prescriptions that can keep them from an emergency room visit, those organizations can mean the difference between life and death. Literally. We interviewed three of those organizations in our community that are making a difference every day for thousands of our neighbors and friends.

Gilda’s Club Chicago

It’s the kind of club to which no one wants to have to become a member. But if the need arises, Gilda’s Club Chicago’s signature red door welcomes with a warm embrace anyone whose life has been touched by cancer.

Named after Gilda Radner, the Gilda’s Club movement began with Radner’s husband, actor Gene Wilder, and her cancer psychotherapist, Joanna Bull, following the comedian’s death in 1989 from ovarian cancer. Radner, one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, was known for her outgoing personality. Having her name affixed to the Club makes sense because Radner was the one who said: “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”

Gilda’s Club Chicago is part of a network of 50 organizations that are all part of the cancer support community around the country, where people living with cancer, their friends and families, can meet and build a social and emotional support system that is an essential supplement to medical care.

In November, a Gilda’s chapter in Madison decided to change its name. This caused some blowback across the nation where it was falsely reported by NBC Nightly News host, Brian Williams, that the entire Gilda’s Club network would be changing its name. Not so. This is only happening in Madison, Wis.. Gilda’s Club Chicago will always be Gilda’s Club Chicago.

“Membership and our programs are free of charge,” says LauraJane Hyde, executive director of Gilda’s Club Chicago. Funding for the Club comes from fund-raisers, corporate and foundation grants, and individuals.

“Cancer affects more than the person diagnosed,” says Hyde. “We want people to know that anyone who has been impacted by cancer in any way is welcome to receive support. No one should have to face cancer alone.”

The Chicago headquarters features a club-like atmosphere within its five floors at 537 North Wells Street. “The basement has Noogieland for kids,” Hyde says. “We have a demo kitchen, a floor for yoga and resources for families to read and learn in a comfortable atmosphere. You really have to come here to experience it to really understand what a great resource it is.”

For those who may not find the location convenient, Hyde is sending Gilda’s Club Chicago out into the community. In addition to having satellite locations at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Rush University Medical Center, and the University of Chicago Hospital, “We go into children’s classrooms; we are now in the faith community; we will meet at a person’s workplace,” she says.

“People are fearful. Many don’t know what to say to someone who has cancer. Kids often come up with their own conclusions. Gilda’s Club Chicago offers support and networking groups, lectures, workshops and social events to help our members.”

It may not be a club most of us want to join, but for its members and our community, it’s a resource we can’t live without.


Mention the words “free clinic” and most people might conjure images of less than ideal settings, admits Judith Haasis, executive director of CommunityHealth in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, with a second satellite location in Englewood. Those images couldn’t be further from the truth when describing CommunityHealth, the largest free clinic in the state that served more than 9,000 low-income, uninsured or underinsured patients in 2011 alone.

CommunityHealth is run almost entirely by volunteer physicians, nurses and pharmacists. The facilities feature state-of-the-art equipment, and patients are seen by appointment by skilled and committed professionals, according to Haasis.

“Our unique service model is supported by three pillars: philanthropy, volunteerism and partnerships,” she says. “Our volunteers help us provide care six days a week.” The main location is open during the day, six days a week, four evenings a week; and the Englewood location is open five days a week during normal business hours.

“We don’t receive government support, so we rely on the private sector—corporations, foundations and individual donors—for financial support to keep our operation going,” Haasis says. “And, we enjoy great partnerships with the leading hospitals including Saint Joseph Hospital, Northwestern Memorial, University
of Chicago, Advocate Health Care and Rush University Medical Center.

In addition to providing healthcare services, CommunityHealth provides free programs to its patients that teach them to be proactive about their health and well-being. “We have visited grocery stores and farmers markets to teach our patients and their families how to read labels and seek out healthier [dietary] alternatives,” Haasis says. “We offer nutrition-based cooking classes, and our volunteer educators have taught classes on how to prepare healthy meals on a budget. We want to empower our patients by providing them with a support network to make positive decisions, and these programs evolve around the diverse interests of our patients and the community.

“CommunityHealth is part of the safety net for those most vulnerable in our communities,” she adds. “By offering our services to patients in this welcoming environment, we protect those critical [emergency room] spots for those who really need those services.”

Normal Moments

“When your child is critically ill or in the hospital for long periods at a time, all you can think about is being with your child,” says Patricia Fragen, founder and executive director of Normal Moments.

“Not the laundry that is piling up, or the snow that needs to be plowed or your dog that needs to be walked.

“When a critically ill child is in the hospital, most of the time they want only two things: mommy and daddy.”

Fragen knows this all too well. She spent as much time as she could at her daughter Melissa’s bedside as she battled cancer. During that time, it was Melissa’s private woodwind instructor, David, who would come to their home to look after their three dogs and help around the house. Melissa played clarinet, saxophone and oboe in the woodwinds family. She also played piano, guitar and even learned to play the trumpet by the very end. Although David was her private music instructor, when it wasn’t lesson time, they were much more like brother and sister, Fragen said. Before Melissa passed away, Melissa said, “You know, Mom, everyone deserves a David.”

Normal Moments was created to carry on Melissa’s legacy to provide families with their own David when a family is battling a critical childhood diagnosis or has a medically complex child who needs concentrated parenting time or hospital time.

In the few short years it has been around, this nonprofit organization has grown immensely, now catering to over 200 families and volunteers throughout the Chicagoland area. Its reach is vast: up to the Wisconsin and Indiana borders and as far as Coal City and past Rockford.

“We rely on a growing network of volunteers, and 100 percent of in-dividual dollar donations go directly to serve families,” adds Fragen. To help fund its various administrative costs, such as its communications efforts and email newsletter, it asks for underwriting.

­­­Fragen realizes the support their volunteers offer its families is priceless, and families are grateful. “Our volunteers come with no judgment, no emotional history and are there to help,” she says. “Our Davids ­­mean the world to our families when they know someone is there to take care of things so they can spend precious time with their children.”


Gilda’s Club Chicago: http://www.gildasclubchicago.org/home.html


CommunityHealth: http://www.communityhealth.org/

 Normal Moments:  http://www.normalmoments.org/