Karen Morrison’s daughter Teagan once asked her to explain her career in “raising money.” Though Teagan was half correct about her mother’s occupation, Karen wanted to be sure the then 6-year-old understood there was much more to the job than met Teagan’s eye.
“You have a life journey – beginning and an ending – everybody does; some short, long, medium,” Morrison explained to her daughter, who is now 9. “If you have cancer on that life journey, whether it’s early, in the middle or it ends your life, wherever it is, that portion of your life’s journey is a tough portion. I get to help with that.”
As CEO and president of Gilda’s Club Louisville, Morrison shares in the triumph and tragedy of cancer, from celebrating birthday or end-of-chemotherapy parties to attending the funerals of former club members who lost their battle to the disease.
Recently commemorating its fifth birthday, Gilda’s Club Louisville is a nonprofit whose mission is to create welcoming communities of free support for anyone living with cancer, along with his or her family and friends. The nonprofit is a branch of the national agency created in honor of comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Coping with cancer and illness is all too close to Morrison, whose 16-year-old daughter Kinsey defeated three life-threatening illnesses as a child, after once being expected not to live past age 5. “After my experience with Kinsey, I wanted to work directly with families and benefit families who are going through what we had, because I knew how tough it was,” said Morrison, who also has a daughter Jillian, 13. “There is no doubt, I would not be here if it weren’t for Kinsey. She inspires me every day and she’s definitely the reason for the work I do.”
Prior to her current employer, Morrison worked with the American Cancer Society (ACS), but soon became involved with Gilda’s Club after speaking with an employee of Brown-Forman. “(I) asked (the employee) for a gift for the American Cancer Society, and he said, ‘Well let me think about it, (I) need to talk to my wife. She’s gotten involved with this group of women who are trying to bring another non-profit to town. It’s called Gilda’s Club,’” Morrison recalled. “He called me a few days later and said he and his wife decided not to make a gift to the American Cancer Society but his wife wanted to meet me.”
As they say, the rest is history. From Morrison’s initial meeting about the new nonprofit, she began working in a consulting capacity about a year before Gilda’s Club’s red door opened to Louisville. “I was so drawn to the mission because it’s so grassroots,” she said of the organization, which keeps 100 percent of its money local. “Six local cancer survivors started it. They believe in it, they lived it. And I get to see the fruits of my labor every day. I get to be a part of that community. I get to celebrate the successes and the triumphs over this monster.”
Since 2007, Morrison has witnessed rapid growth and transformation of the organization. “It was equally terrifying and exhilarating to sort of start from scratch and build something from the ground up,” Morrison reminisced. “Our philosophy is we’re going to have any policy and procedure that we need but not one bit more. Because we’re just going to do what makes sense and we’re going to be very efficient with the dollars to make sure they go where they should be going.”
In the last five years, Gilda’s Club Louisville has extended its hours of operation and expanded from two support groups to about 55, including a newly added pancreatic cancer networking group and blood cancer support group. The children’s program has also been an essential component in helping kids cope with circumstances and challenges they may not fully understand at the time of a diagnosis.
Aside from learning how to successfully run a nonprofit, Morrison has also developed personally through her experiences with the many people, young and old, rich and poor, who come and go at Gilda’s Club. “I think one of the most important things (I’ve learned is) to live with cancer is not a choice we make; how we live with it is a choice,” said Morrison. “And I get to see people do that a lot of different ways. And the people who live with it well, who live with it with style, with courage, tend to stick around. The ones who live with it with anger and resentment, they don’t feel quite as comfortable in this environment because that’s not what we’re about.
“I’ve also learned some incredible lessons about how dying is part of living. You can approach that whether it’s weeks away or decades away with courage and conviction and still inspire and teach lessons along the way.”
Fundraising has been vital in sustaining the mission of Gilda’s Club and continuing to offer the many monthly events and classes, such as yoga, cooking, art and writing, to individuals and families living with cancer. The organization’s two main fundraisers are Night of a Thousand Laughs and Gilda’s Night, which rotates venues between Rodes For Him & For Her and Bittners. This year’s fundraiser will be held Friday, Nov. 9, at Bittners, 731 E. Main St.
“It’s awe-inspiring and terrifying how reliant we are (on Gilda’s Night),” Morrison said. “About a third of our income comes from this one night. We work on it all year round. I joke that we bow down to Gilda’s Night because we couldn’t do what we do without it being successful.”
Gilda’s Night will feature cocktails, a dinner and live auction, plus hundreds of attendees who have been affected in some way by cancer. “It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by cancer,” Morrison said. “That’s one thing about this mission. There are a lot of great nonprofits out there but this one, the reach is broad because half of all men and a third of all women will get a diagnosis in their lifetime. When you extend that to their friends and family, who are you leaving out?”
It’s for this reason that Morrison wishes she could reach out to even more individuals. After seeing the incredible, positive impact Gilda’s Club Louisville has had locally in the last half decade, she hopes more people will seek out the organization in years to come. “I think one of my greatest frustrations is that I know there are children and families, men, women and children out there who need us, who would benefit from us, and they don’t even know we exist,” she said. “We have a saying that you have to see it to get it. And I just wish it would be a requirement, every family who had cancer had to at least just come and see it. Just check it out.”
For more information on Gilda’s Club Louisville and Gilda’s Night, visit www.gildasclublouisville.org.
Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune