Olivia Wakeling sees the person, not the disease at Stewart’s Caring Place

Stewart’s Caring Place is a resource for cancer support services, providing hope and compassion to patients and caregivers.

Olivia Wakeling, executive director, says too often nonprofit organizations are mired in program guidelines, eligibility and other restrictions that sometimes prevent a successful outcome. At Stewart’s, the aim is to set that aside and help people heal more than just their bodies.

“One participant shared that Stewart’s ‘restored her humanity,’” Wakeling says. “After the experience of going through treatment, you can become a good patient, but you may forget how to be yourself. Stewart’s can help deal with all of the uncertainties, and how to get back to a calm mind.”

Smart Business spoke with Wakeling to learn more about the nonprofit, its mission and its challenges.

SB: What drove you to work with Stewart’s?

OW: I was inspired to join the Stewart’s team when I came to visit. Within a few steps of the front door, I realized this agency is not really about cancer, but about life and the celebration of life. Cancer may be the common thread bringing us together, but the programs and services are designed to promote wellness. In our world, wellness does not always translate to physical healing, but instead an ability to find joy and beauty in life, even in the midst of challenge.

SB: What has stood out most about Stewart’s since you became executive director?

OW: I am impressed daily by the overwhelming outpouring of support from our volunteers. Every day men and women show up to work at the front desk, deliver trays of treats for support groups, provide leadership for our programs and a host of other activities. I am overwhelmed by the generosity of the volunteers, who are truly the heartbeat of this agency and without whom we would not be in a position to serve.

SB: How do you avoid staff burnout and turnover so that staffers stay engaged and healthy while on the job?

OW: I encourage a team environment and open communication to help support each staff member during critical times. We have streamlined work flows and even added online appointment booking through our Facebook page.

With a small staff and many hours to cover, we are not always together. Many of our programs are offered in the evenings when volunteers and participants are generally most available. Restructuring staffing to include a dedicated opener and closer helped alleviate scheduling issues for the remaining staff members.

I created a staff area for group meals and communications — mailboxes, bulletin board — nothing groundbreaking, but effective.

We try to celebrate each victory, and appreciate the service we are there to offer. We take time to visit with our participants. Fortunately, my efforts are aided significantly by the tremendous perspective we see each day. It is easier for me to see my blessings, especially my health, when faced daily with the alternative.

SB: What support do you receive from professionals and the business community, and how does that support help further Stewart’s mission?

OW: Stewart’s is grateful for the generous support of the many business professionals in our community who step up to serve as facilitators, board members, donors and volunteers. All of our programs are led by qualified, licensed professionals in their field who donate their time to help families through their cancer journey. The board of directors provides critical leadership, planning and support. Corporate volunteer teams and community groups serve both through on-site projects and a number of community fundraisers. In all areas, from program to development and leadership, we could not exist without those who support this effort.

SB: Has Stewart’s been able to keep up with demand for its services?

OW: In some areas we are able to keep up with demand, but in many we are not. Some solutions are just harder to find, like in dealing with fatigue, which is a No. 1 complaint for many of our participants.

This year we will be starting our first Yin Yoga class, which will focus on relaxation techniques to improve sleep. We continue to seek programming solutions to address the needs of our participants.

This year we began offering lymphatic massage, which has been hugely successful in reducing swelling and pain for those who are receiving it. We are unable to keep up with the demand for these appointments, and are currently exploring a lymphedema management workshop to help participants and caregivers learn techniques for home use.

We are always seeking qualified and licensed professionals to support areas like integrative therapy. I am hoping to add Saturday hours to accommodate additional appointments in the near future.

SB: What do you see as the organization’s most important goal in the next five years and how will you achieve it?

OW: I am looking forward to helping Stewart’s find a permanent home. As a still relatively young agency, we have rented space for our facility. We are at a point now where we are focusing on sustainability and finding or creating a place where Stewart’s can thrive.