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Mary Nolan and David Kelly of Gort Cancer Support.

A haven for cancer patients at Hollyblue House

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LONDON LADY Catherine had been planning to move back to the West of Ireland to enjoy a slower pace of life, when she found herself grappling with a cancer diagnosis. 

It was the persuasion of her son that brought her to the door of Gort Cancer Support. Despite some initial hesitancy, Catherine crossed the threshold of Hollyblue House to discover services that have proven to be hugely beneficial to her. “I don’t know what to call them angels or saints,” she told The Champion. “When you come here you never talk about cancer and there’s a beautiful, peaceful vibe. You definitely feel better after a visit.”

With welcome signs in English and Portuguese, Gort Cancer Support is a truly inclusive place. All kinds of services are available from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), prosthesis fittings, and reflexology to play therapy. Practical services are offered by a fleet of volunteer drivers who take people to appointments. The service is coordinated from this tranquil haven that supports people all over North Clare and South Galway. The project started off in 2007 in the Old Tech building in the town centre and the trojan work of a dedicated committee and volunteers, as well as the generosity of the friends and the wider community has supported a move to the Carrabeg Road and a state-of-the-art centre. “We were gifted a house here in 2010,” explained Mary Nolan, a director and volunteer. “Around six months later, the owner of the house next door approached us and asked if we would have an interest in it, before they put it on the market. We raised the money converted them into one centre.” 

Something of a human dynamo, raising funds and supporting the team to keep the place ticking over, Mary said the recent appointment of a Centre Manager has been a major breakthrough. 

“That makes a really huge difference to what we can offer here,” Mary said. “We have CE staff and volunteers and everything needs to be coordinated. Monday, we have Chair Yoga. Tuesday, we have Art. Wednesday, we have Tai Chi. Thursday, it’s knitting and stitching and card making. Friday, we’re finishing up a menopause programme for people dealing with menopause brought on by their cancer or chemotherapy. There’s a lot going on.”

Even gardening is available, thanks to a studio space. This Thursday (July 6), at 7.30pm, Tom Stewart of Keane’s Garden Centre will be back again for the popular workshops.

Having interior design expertise available from a supporter of the centre has meant the team has seen the inside of the building transformed into a peaceful retreat. The garden and studio, some of which are dedicated to benefactors (including ‘Sully’s Corner’), enhance the feeling of relaxation and calm. So too does the name. “Hollyblue is one of the first butterflies of Spring, and with children coming here too, we wanted to have something welcoming,” Mary said.

With around 250 people availing of supports, the centre makes a huge difference in the lives of cancer patients. One man from the area was able to avail of the transport service during his radiotherapy. “That man would have had to cycle into Gort and then get a bus to Galway,” Mary said. “Thankfully, our drivers were able to collect him and take him directly to the hospital. He said he probably wouldn’t be here without that. We were able to support another man living in West Clare who had no transport to get to Doonbeg and back to Galway for treatment.” The team of up to 23 volunteer drivers make a huge difference, not just to patients, but to their families. “It really does relieve pressure on the family unit,” David Kelly, Chairperson, noted. “By talking to people who come in, that’s how we discovered how important that service is.”

Given that the centre provides invaluable services, the lack of direct financial support from government, means that fundraising is a huge undertaking. When they were looking to expand the premises, and applied for €200,000 in Section 39 support for non-acute health service providers, they amount they were granted fell far short. “We got just €2,000,” explained David. “We’re now getting €7,000, but that’s all. Every possible grant and every funding stream that could be available, Mary and the team apply for it. That’s a complicated and time-consuming process.”

The activism of the team has made a huge impression on the community and generous benefactors have made a huge difference to the centre’s work. “There’s a family of McInerneys whose friends are the Collins’s,” David outlined. “They used to come to Gort on holidays and when the motorway was coming through, they received money and decided to invest it back into the locality. All the money they got, they gave to schools, the Lions Club, social services, and so on, who distributed it. This house came on the market and they bought it for us.”

“Sadie McInerney is one of our directors,” added Mary. “She still comes to our meetings and her efforts have made a big difference. Everything here is done very cost-effectively. The joke here is that if you’re not being used, you’re on Done Deal very quickly. Every inch of space is vital to us.”

John ‘Sully’ Sullivan is another person who has dedicated time and ingenuity to raise funds, after getting “sheared and shaved” in recent years. “Without those people, we couldn’t exist,” said David.

Gort Cancer Support Hollyblue Gifts is one of the newest fundraising initiatives. “We ask for people to donate unopened gifts and showcase those on Facebook,” Mary explained. “If someone sends us a message, we’ll keep the item for them and they can come in to our shop to collect it. The shop is small at the moment, but it needs to build, so that’s why we’re freeing up space there right now. People can also call in any time.”

The management of the centre is now a professional role and one that has helped services to run even more efficiently. “We needed to have a paid full-time manager,” said David. “Mary will kill me for saying it, but she had been doing that role for 50 to 60 hours a week for years, without a cent. Cara was a volunteer here and, after a formal interview process, we took her on. That salary also needs to be fund-raised for.”

The work of the centre has been recognised with a number of awards, including one from the Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council in 2020. Despite the accolades, direct government funding is still a struggle. “Our books have always been in perfect order,” noted Mary, “and that’s helped to show that we deserve funding. Now, having a professional manager is also a step forward because people perceive us differently. 

Catherine agrees that people need to see the centre to believe what it can offer. “I originally came to Galway to recuperate and get ready for my next surgery,” she explained. “My son took me here and I didn’t really want to come. I thought, ‘Oh, no, I can’t I don’t want to go in with lots of other people’. He persuaded me to just come and have a look. So I did I. I thought, ‘God, it’s lovely’. They’re all so lovely here. It was like a little safe haven. So, then I started getting involved in the arts and crafts. I look forward to it. It’s lovely. I don’t think I can say enough or put into words what it does for you. It’s the best thing ever. There are so many things here that either some people can’t afford to do, or they just wouldn’t try. When you come here you never talk about cancer. They really help. Even just talking over a cup of tea really helps. Just now, I was speaking to Noreen in the kitchen and we were talking about everything under the sun. The atmosphere is so nice and there is a beautiful peaceful vibe. Mary and the whole team put so much into the place.”

Catherine also believes in the benefits of setting stress aside at Hollyblue House. “When you’ve been through all of the cancer treatments and surgeries, you live in fight or flight mode,” she said. “When that ends, then all of a sudden you think, ‘What do I do now?’ Everybody else around you is probably a bit fed up with it at that stage. But you come here and you can just be yourself. You can be happy and chat about normal things. It’s wonderful. It really is. It’s so nice. The volunteers are wonderful. They’re all different, but they’re all just so kind. When I get back home, I think to myself, ‘Gosh, I’m so glad I went in today. It was lovely’.” 

Full details of services are available on Gortcancersupport.ie. The centre has two Facebook pages, Gort Cancer Support, where details can be found on workshop bookings; and Gort Cancer Support Hollyblue Gifts. 

About Fiona McGarry

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