Cathie Anderson

Cathie Anderson: Wellness Within, a Roseville nonprofit for cancer survivors, looks to expand

Cathie Anderson
Cathie Anderson

Wellness Within executive director Patti Brown sat down with her husband and their two children at the kitchen table just after Christmas 2009 and told them she wanted to quit her work as a marriage and family therapist and start a mind-body wellness center for people coping with cancer. And, oh yeah, she wanted all the services to be free.

Her husband David Brown, then an executive at Intel, asked: “And, when would you like to do this?”

Roseville’s Wellness Within opened in September 2010, meeting Patti Brown’s goal of “by the end of the year” with months to spare. The nonprofit center has been embraced by oncologists and their patients, but the Browns still wrestle with how to fund all the work done there and all the work they believe still needs doing.

Patti Brown started alone, and three people showed up for her wellness and therapy classes. In January 2011, she asked a nutritionist, a yoga teacher and other holistic practitioners if they would like to teach classes at the center. They readily agreed, even though there was no money to pay them. The nonprofit gets roughly 200 visits a month, and participants take classes in nutrition, relaxation, meditation, yoga, nature walks and expressive arts such as photography and journaling.

Dr. Julie Hersch, an oncologist at Kaiser Permanente in Roseville, has sent many patients to Wellness Within and said she puts pamphlets in every exam room. She believes so firmly in the nonprofit’s work that she joined its board a couple years ago.

“People who get a diagnosis, they’re sometimes really unprepared. Sometimes the fear is overwhelming, and it interferes with their ability to even function , but I see people come back from the center with new skills and ability to cope. When I refer patients, I get emails, and they say to me in person, ‘Thank you so much.’”

The Browns say the center has proven itself, not only because Hersch and other oncologists increasingly are sending patients their way but also because individual donations are growing. In the organization’s first years, as Patti Brown was winding down her therapy practice, she used her wages to pay Wellness Within’s expenses. Slowly, though, she began to listen to advisers who also recognized the center’s worth and wanted to ensure it was financially sustainable.

Patti Brown had seen friends’ and family’s finances wrecked because they didn’t have insurance plans that covered treatment, and she was determined that no patient be turned away because they couldn’t afford to pay. But what if they simply asked participants to make a donation when they signed up for a class? What if they placed signs around the center saying that donations would be gratefully accepted? They got answers as $7,100 was given in 2012, $13,200 in 2013, and $13,000 by July this year.

They also added an annual fundraiser in 2011 that has raised more money each year. This year’s event, David Brown said, brought in upward of $70,000. As funding has grown, Wellness Within has begun paying rent and small stipends to staff, but more is needed. In other cities, wealthy donors have endowed such centers, Patti Brown said, but she is hoping they can persuade local hospitals and insurers to cover or contribute to their programs.

It took 35 years, Patti Brown said, before she realized that this is the work she was meant to do. Brown was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 18, she told me, and she remembers the deep fear of the Big C. Fortunately, the tumor turned out to be benign, but Brown said she and her family could have used a place like Wellness Within.