WESTLAKE — It’s the tissue boxes placed in every room, hallway, nook and cranny that hint as to what really goes on at The Gathering Place in Westlake.

With its purple and green wall colors that are bright, but muted at the same time, comfortable furniture and cheerful cartoon figures painted on one wall, it could be any sprawling office, daycare or even a business that caters to adults and children.

Except for the tissues. Even during the most sniffly of cold seasons, the number of scattered boxes would be too much.

The Gathering Place, about to celebrate 20 years of growth and service, is a place of quiet healing, contemplation and practicality for those struggling to process one of the most difficult situations imaginable — a cancer diagnosis either by the visitor or the visitor’s family and friends.

“We are here to help and comfort during extremely difficult times,” said Kristina Austin, chief marketing manager for the center, founded in Beachwood in 2000 by its current chief executive officer, Eileen Saffran. “They are dealing with hard stuff.”

The Westlake center opened in 2008. At first located in the Youth Challenge building on Sharon Drive, the program outgrew that space and moved into a 6,500-square-foot part of the Cuyahoga Community College Corporate College West building in July 2017. The new space is named The Sandy Borrelli Center.

With about 350 volunteers and operating entirely on donations — no government funding at all, Austin emphasizes — The Gathering Place offers free programs and services addressing the emotional, physical, spiritual and social needs of individuals and families coping with the impact of cancer. The annual budget is about $2 million, from about 400 gifts. “Seventy-nine cents of every $1 donated goes to programs. We are a lean machine,” Austin said.

“We support people from the time of diagnosis, during treatment and after treatment has ended,” she added.

Austin walked through the center, explaining the purpose of each room. She started with a room holding a large sandbox. Above the sand-filled tabletop are shelves filled with small dolls, including superheroes, animals, cars and everything needed to ignite imagination — and perhaps tell a story (and emotions) that a child might not be able to put into words.

Another room is filled with the standard toys, including a play kitchen, but also some unusual accoutrements. Off to one side, are children-size medical coats. And on a table, a custom-make, are a doll-size MRI machine and medical exam table.

Again, Austin said, play can help children process events and feelings, perhaps making either their diagnosis or a parent’s diagnosis, more manageable.

Many of the rooms on the tour are filled with just comfortable chairs and small tables, perfect for different-size group counseling sessions. There’s also a spa room, a kitchen for cooking classes and, as indicated by a large kiln sitting in one corner, even pottery-making activities.

A recent addition is a small room near the kitchen, inspired by columnist and cancer survivor Regina Brett. The room is basically a wig salon, with shelves filled with blond, brunette, red and every-shade-in-between wigs.

“It’s easier and less stressful to come here to try out wigs,” Austin said, adding that oftentimes insurance does not cover buying a wig because it is not considered medically essential. The wigs, she said, are free at The Gathering Place.

A large middle room was occupied at the time of the tour by a large yoga class — an activity that calms and helps eliminate stress.

One of the most important rooms in the center is the medical library. Just don’t say “This is almost like a library” to librarian Eileen Coan.

“This IS a library,” she said, sternly.

Her duties — she divides her time between the east and west sides — are to “help people understand their diagnosis, the treatments and the side effects. Helping them understand also helps them get back in charge of themselves,” said Coan, who holds a master’s degree in library science degree and psychology. Previously, she worked at the Moll Cancer Center, across the street from Fairview Hospital.

“We help them with what they need,” she said, which might mean starting them out with “bite-sized” articles, all the way to books. “I’m glad to be there for anyone who needs help or answers.”

The beauty of The Gathering Place “is we are able to help people in a time of real chaos. We help them through,” said Austin, who has worked at The Gathering Place for 16 years.

“There is no charge for any of our programs,” she said, adding that they see about 4,000 visitors a year. “Some may come a few times a week (for classes and counseling), or we may see someone just once. Some may come early after a diagnosis, and then come again a year later.”

The Gathering Place, she said, “meets people where they are.”

As she finished the tour, Austin walked by the reception desk — occupied, of course, by volunteers — and looked behind her toward the office. She was looking for the source of a quiet tinkling noise that could be heard periodically above the soothing background music playing in every part of the center.

It turned out to be a solar-powered wind chime in a nearby office.

“That sounds really soothing,” she said.

Appropriate, that is, for a place meant to soothe and help.

For more information on The Gathering Place, go to touchedbycancer.org or call 216-595-9546.

Contact this reporter at editor@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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