Nonprofit expands mission of providing housework, meals and help with bills for mothers facing a cancer diagnosis to Vancouver
VANCOUVER — Even today, half a year after her diagnosis, JaNiece Micheal fights back tears as she contemplates a thought that invaded her psyche shortly after she was told she had an aggressive form of breast cancer that had already reached her bones.
“Is this going to kill me before they finish high school?” she asked herself, thinking of the 13-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter who live with her in Vancouver and rely on her for care.
The answer to that question is effectively out of her hands as she prepares for a double bilateral mastectomy, a surgery that’s scheduled for next month that comes after 20 weeks of chemotherapy.
It’s just one concern among hundreds that enter the minds of those faced with something as dire and potentially fatal as stage 4 cancer. Those issues can be multiplied even further if, like Micheal, you’re facing the ordeal as a single mother who at the same time is relied upon by children for a home, food, support and all the guidance expected and required in a single-parent household.
That uncertain and at times terrifying juncture is where Michelle’s Love comes in.
The nonprofit organization recently expanded to Vancouver from its home base in Portland. Its actions and goals all fall under the overarching umbrella of supporting mothers, and even fathers, who are battling cancer in order to make it easier for them to spend more time with their children and less time worrying about paying bills, cooking and cleaning.
The roots of the organization are buried in love, specifically that of founder Andy McCandless, a woman who acted on sorrow following the death of her best friend Michelle Singleton in October 2005 by creating an avenue for her grief that brings relief to single parents who have just been hit with the worst news of their lives.
McCandless says she was devastated as she watched Singleton’s health decline despite her determination to stay alive and continue supporting her children. Watching her suffer through the effects of chemotherapy while being deprived of the ability to spend quality time with her kids was difficult to watch as her closest friend.
Ultimately, when Singleton died, McCandless felt an unrelenting urge to build an organization that would help women who faced the same immense challenge of caring for a household while staring down the possibility of death.
“I just had an idea to help a mom and it kind of just grew from there,” she told ClarkCountyToday.com, adding, “It was the guilt of feeling like I could have done better when she was around.”
Singleton Moms was born
Based in Phoenix, Arizona, at the time, the organization was known as Singleton Moms, and its mission was to provide aid to single mothers facing a cancer diagnosis. More than 100 parents were assisted over five years before McCandless, a co-founder, moved to Portland where she created Michelle’s Love with the same guiding mission and focus as its predecessor, which still exists today.
McCandless says she’s on firmer footing this time around, having learned a number of lessons on how to manage and operate a nonprofit while involved with Singleton Moms.
When Singleton, the loving mother of four children, died, McCandless says she was 28 and “had never volunteered a day in my life.” She didn’t really know what a nonprofit was, much less how to lead one.
Still, as she put one foot in front of the other each day, she learned how to carry out the mission she had helped create. It was satisfying work, but it wasn’t always positive.
“It’s sad and it’s hard,” she said. “You watch people get sick and you watch people die.”
This time around, as she maintains relationships with clients in Portland and Phoenix and carries out an expansion over the Columbia River into Vancouver, she’s far more confident and experienced than the grieving 28-year-old who acted on her grief to assist those facing situations similar to what had created it.
“It was healthier because I had learned so much with the first one,” she said. “I was just at a better spot and a more educated spot.”
Currently, the nonprofit, which is adamant about keeping costs, administrative and otherwise, as low as possible in order to focus on parents, is assisting three in Phoenix, four in Portland and two in Vancouver.
That assistance comes in forms that are basic and regulated by design.
It’s all about providing house and yard work, meals and help with bills.
The reason for the limited scope is fairly simple — McCandless wants to remain true to the mission of Michelle’s Love, and that’s to provide mothers with more time to spend with their children while reducing stress at home.
“If your house is clean and the bills are paid and you have dinner on the table, there’s not much else you need,” McCandless said.
Clients are often directed to Michelle’s Love by medical staff who have become familiar with its mission and record of success.
The first question is always the most important
Once a parent with a cancer diagnosis reaches out to the organization, McCandless will conduct an interview.
The first question is always the most important.
“What is your biggest concern right now aside from the obvious?” McCandless asks, leaving aside the cancer diagnosis that understandably represents the largest concern overall.
For Micheal, the 45-year-old Vancouver mother facing stage 4 breast cancer, it was her yard.
She only has a push lawnmower, she said, and it would be difficult for her children to maintain the grass and keep annoyed neighbors at bay.
“It grows really fast and I don’t want to be a nuisance to the neighbors,” she said.
McCandless replied within a day of her message to Michelle’s Love.
Yes, we can take care of your yard, she said, but that’s not the limit of the services.
On Saturday, a team of volunteers descended on the property and began cleaning her house, mowing her yard and slowly but surely eliminating one small concern after another.
As the work was done, Micheal was sent away with $100 in order to enjoy some time shopping and eating with her 13-year-old son, fulfilling a very important goal of Michelle’s Love if even for the afternoon.
Beyond that, the nonprofit is providing some meals for the family through a paid service while also taking care of her mortgage for the month of May when she will be unable to work due to her surgery.
And the yard work wasn’t a one time thing.
No, McCandless and Michelle’s Love have assured Micheal that a crew will be back to keep the yard in order as she faces first surgery and then radiation treatment.
Micheal expressed deep appreciation for the nonprofit itself and its specific care for her family at a time when she was beginning to worry about how she was going to even feed her children.
“We would have really struggled without her,” she said, “and now we’re going to be OK.”
Nonprofit has now assisted 71 parents
There have been a total of 71 parents left with similar feeling of gratitude since McCandless opened up shop in the Pacific Northwest.
With the help of donors and volunteers, that number will continue to climb as operations expand into Vancouver.
McCandless is adamant about sticking to what she’s learned and providing all who are involved in the nonprofit the security of knowing that every dollar possible goes directly to helping a parent who needs a kind and gentle hand at a turbulent and uncertain time.
She’s proud of one fundraiser in particular, an event that cost $15 to hold and delivered a yield of $16,000 for the nonprofit. She doesn’t buy business cards. She won’t pay for brochures. There are no paid promotions.
By keeping the mission and finances simple, she’s able to deliver on her goals, which really haven’t changed in the years since she acted on sorrow to create hope for others.
“Our mission is to make sure your dollars go to helping the moms,” she said.
McCandless still remembers all the great qualities of her closest friend and one of the best moms she’s ever known. Her humor. Her determination to “stick around for her kids.” Her skillful and efficient way of parenting.
Singleton would be proud, McCandless admits, of the nonprofit and the work that has blossomed from the tragedy of her early death.
Had things gone differently, McCandless thinks Singleton might have been right at her side in the effort.
“I can still hear her laugh, I can still hear her saying, ‘Andy they’re just kids,’” McCandless says, later adding, “If she had survived this we would have come up with something like this ourselves.”
To learn more about Michelle’s Love or find out how to make a donation or volunteer, visit www.michelleslove.org.