Karen Morrison, the President and CEO of Gilda’s Club Louisville, lives by the mantra first espoused by the late comedienne Gilda Radner: No one should face cancer alone.
That’s part of the reason that the organization, which offers more than 100 free programs every month for people with cancer and their families, is expanding its reach. Morrison says the nonprofit organization will be adding a larger facility in the Highlands and adding new locations in southern Indiana and West Louisville.
“Cancer affects every aspect of your life,” she says. “It turns lives upside down. When people are living without a safety net or support system, it can flip it even more. It’s harder when people are struggling to figure out how to get transportation to treatment.”
Morrison says access to care and treatment, including emotional support, is a huge obstacle for many people.
“There are barriers in this community – the Ohio River represents one, Ninth Street represent another,” she says. “For whatever reasons, they are a barrier to access. We wanted to have programs available in Southern Indiana and West Louisville. We can remove the obstacles, then we have a better chance of reaching them and improving their health outcomes.”
Morrison says the organization is planning to change its name from Gilda’s Club Louisville to Gilda’s Club Kentuckiana in an effort to broaden its reach. And the planned move to West Louisville will come at a perfect time: The partnership with KAAAC will allow that group to use the space during the day, and Gilda’s Club can offer programs in the evenings. (Morrison says that in 2007, the first full year Gilda’s Club operated in Louisville, just 8 percent of those served were minorities; last year, that percentage had increased to 24 percent.)
When someone gets a cancer diagnosis, Morrison says, they can react in a variety of ways. Some want to give up, others kick into high gear and get stuff done. When they come to Gilda’s Club, they can take part in support lectures, workshops, art, music, cooking classes, light exercise and writing classes. She encourages individuals to keep living their lives.
“What we say is living with cancer is not a choice anyone would make,” she says. “How you live with it is your choice. Live with cancer with style, with joy, with laughter, with purpose – that’s what Gilda’s Club is all about.”
Morrison, who has worked for nonprofit organizations for more than three decades, started out as a volunteer at Gilda’s Club. As CEO, she says she likes working with a small, grass-roots organization that is creative and innovative, even as its yearly budget has been increased from $1.7 million to $6 million.
And she has her own personal story about cancer. Her daughter is healthy and active, now 21 and soon to graduate from Stanford University. She leads hiking and mountain-climbing groups. But when she was 5, Morrison was told by doctors her daughter had five weeks to live.
“There’s not a person on this planet who actively finds more joy in every day,” Morrison says. “She’s been dealing with the possibility of dying for as long as she can remember.”
And while Morrison says she gets to see the benefits of helping people every day, she also attends many funerals and comforts survivors and their families.
“We’re all about not just mental health for people living with cancer, but cancer prevention and everything that goes along with the cancer journey outside of the direct medical,” she says. “The feelings of fear, anxiety, depression and helplessness, all of those kinds of things that come up. Those symptoms happen not just with the person with cancer but the whole family.”