By: Meghan Lamb
There is a word we use at Gilda’s Club that you have probably heard often. In the Clubhouse, on our socials and emails, and every printed material that we produce, that word is included. At Gildas, we like to use the word ‘community’ any chance we get. Community is at the core of our mission, and in a time when we are inundated with virtual meetings and distance from our loved ones, it would not be surprising if our community has taken a hit. However, the beautiful reality is that it hasn’t. Our groups and our bonds are stronger than ever.
An expressive arts group led by longtime volunteer Meryl Kraft is a perfect example of a thriving community, even in a virtual space. For those of you who don’t know Meryl, she was introduced to Gilda’s Club about 24 years ago when she was undergoing treatment for her first bout of cancer, and as she says, ‘needed to cover my cold head.’ She called Gilda’s and was pointed in the right direction for finding a wig.
Several years later, she started teaching workshops for Gilda’s Club a few times a year titled, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” Several years after that, her stepdaughter was diagnosed with cancer and Gilda’s Club became a wonderful support for her and a great place to go for groups, classes, and workshops. After Meryl retired, she began teaching class more often at Gilda’s and during COVID the class became a regular thing.
This class has evolved into the very epitome of what it means to create a strong and supportive community. The dedicated participants love art and each other so much that they are now getting together for Open Studio Days whenever the formal drawing class does not meet. Meryl aptly noted that, ‘The expressive arts are vital in building community. When folks are dealing with cancer, they need distractions and successes. Art is the perfect answer.”
While Meryl has noted it can be difficult to teach virtually, the participants make it easy. Their willingness to share their work and their love for art makes it easy to connect even when they aren’t in person.
“This class is amazing! There are 8 regular participants. We talk about everything from art to family to cancer, medications, and treatments. The members of this group know they have friends who understand and can talk about what they are going through. And – we have some great artists who are interested in learning about art! I want people to be comfortable talking about everything and I want them to be successful making art.”
From the talk of Meryl’s class, she is doing precisely that. One of the class regulars J.L., said “Keeping in mind that the Open Studio concept is that all of us can work on any creative project we love to do, I think the virtual aspect actually works well because we have all our supplies right there in our own space. Yet we are talking, laughing, encouraging, and creating our art – together.”
J.L. came to Gilda’s after finding a brochure in her oncologist’s office. After her treatment for her triple negative breast cancer began, she knew that she and her husband would not be able to face it on their own. She joined a Gilda’s Club support group and then found the wonderful watercolor classes. She said, ‘after everything went virtual, Meryl offered up her drawing class, and I apprehensively signed up for it, as I had never taken drawing before. There was and is no reason to be concerned – Meryl helps us begin wherever we are in our abilities, and she often shares guidance and encouragement to improve.”
While the mode of expression in this class is art, there is also a universal theme of encouragement and joy.
J.L. said that her best memories from Meryl’s class are of everyone literally cheering each other on as they work together to learn something new. Naturally, that includes joyful laughter and erasable do-overs, but Meryl gently coaches them to the goal of getting their artwork to how they want it to be.
For Meryl, every week this class presents favorite moments and memories. Some weeks there are extremely successful works of art made, and other weeks there are important conversations about where to go and what to do for people to get the help they need with their diagnosis or their long-term issues. Other weeks they just like to hear about everyone’s family, friends, and holidays.
And while this group has blossomed in the virtual space, some of Meryl’s greatest memories are finally getting to meet the members of their group in-person. “We all felt like family!”
The arts have been bringing people together for centuries, and this class is no exception. However, J.L. was able to perfectly sum up the nuances of needing a supportive group of friends and an outlet for self-expression. “As we all know, a cancer diagnosis of our own or of someone we love changes everything, and we cannot face it alone. The atmosphere at Gilda’s Club allows for being real in a safe place through support groups of various kinds. I think the expressive arts add to building community at Gilda’s by allowing all to bring what is on their hearts in yet another way.”
Interested in joining this class? Check out the program calendar for upcoming dates.