Love, laughter and an amazing cause. Meet Jenni Lilledahl.

We get pretty inspired, amazed, and grateful when Megan, Anna and I look around to the people we know.  I’m all of those things today as I introduce a life long friend, Jenni Lilledahl, and her awesome story of devotion to her sister and the legacy she left.. and that no one should have to struggle through illness alone.  Please head over to their Facebook here and when the time strikes to get involved in something bigger than yourself – let Gilda’s Club Twin Cities be a place you swing on by. 
Enjoy my interview with Jenni!

Jenni, tell us a little about yourself.  How GC came to be and what your main goals are for the community you serve?

    My name is Jenni Lilledahl and I am the co-owner of the Brave New Workshop Comedy Theatre (with my hubby John Sweeney), and co-founder and current Board President of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities (a cancer support organization opening in the Twin Cities late in 2013). John and I have two boys (5th and 2nd grade) and we love improvisation. About a year after my future hubby, John Sweeney, and I bought the Brave New Workshop from Dudley Riggs (we took over in March 1997), my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic cancer in the liver.  At the time she was married and had two kids (ages 8 and 5). The news was shocking and right away I was designated as the one in the family to go find resources in the community to help her family, husband, kids and my parents all cope emotionally with the shock. And the shock was very real and big, as we were told she had maybe only 9 months to live.  I looked very hard for something to help the family, but outside of a few ‘classes’ or support groups (all at hospitals, and all focused primarily on the patient), I found nothing. It was a struggle for all of us and we would have loved for someone to help us through this emotional part. John and I had been living in Chicago a couple years before, working for Second City Communications, and I remember reading about Gilda’s Club in Chicago, a place for families to get social and emotional support when dealing with cancer. So I called an old colleague at Second City and asked about Gilda’s Club, and they put me in touch with the national organization, which was headquartered in New York City at the time.  Gilda’s Club Worldwide let me know that there was not a Gilda’s Club in the Twin Cities, but that I could “start one” if I wanted. I learned that it is a grass roots organization, with several clubs around the U.S., but all started locally with local funds and local hard work.  I naively said, “o.k. there isn’t one here…and we clearly need one, so we will start one.”  My husband and I and our friend Jim Wadsworth attended the first national conference for Gilda’s Club Worldwide the next year, just a few months after my sister passed away. We fell in love with the organization and the mission and vowed to open one in the Twin Cities some day. That was 1999.  Owning a business in a changing economy and artistic environment then got in the way, and it wasn’t until 2004 that the actual spark to start something in the TC happened.  There were two other women in the Twin Cities who had also fallen in love with Gilda’s Club and also had just suffered loss due to cancer. Gilda’s Club Worldwide connected the three of us, and in 2005, the three of us co-founders, Dolly Lowery, Carrie Puterbaugh and I started what would become Gilda’s Club Twin Cities.  We still remark that even though there wasn’t a Gilda’s Club open to help the three of our families, that Gilda’s Club DID connect the three of us and so before even opening our doors, Gilda’s magic was working on us. You ask what does Gilda’s Club mean to me? It’s so hard to answer in a few words, but basically it means giving some warmth and understanding and a sense of belonging to anyone struggling with cancer…any time, any person, any cancer.  We do that by creating an actual physical place for people to go to where they can connect with others who know what they are going through. And at this place, our Gilda’s Club Twin Cities Clubhouse, people can participate in support groups, cooking classes, yoga, art therapy, social events, classes and a myriad of other programs.  I get a few calls a month from folks looking for help when cancer hits a family. It’s so hard for people to navigate the complicated and disparate offerings of support. While our medical care system is amazing and people with cancer in the Twin Cities get the best care for their physical illness, hospitals are the first to say their job is primarily the body, and patients are mostly on their own to find the social and emotional support they’ll need for themselves AND their families when they’re at home coping with the non-physical side effects of cancer in the family (which are depression, stress, isolation, fear, lonliness, anger, isolation, etc. . . ). There may be a support group at one hospital, but it’s only monthly and only for the patient. Or a class at another hospital, but it’s not for the whole family. When Gilda’s Club Twin Cities opens later this year, there will be a single place, a warm and welcoming and cozy clubhouse, where anyone can go, any time and find the support they need. By the way, it’s all free with offerings 8 – 10 hours a day, 6 days a week.




    Speaking of community,  PN is all about community.  What does that mean to you, how does GC involve community and what  are your hopes for a growing the community at GCTC?  


    Gilda’s Club Twin Cities (GCTC) is founded on and based upon the principles of “community.”  When Gilda Radner was living with cancer in the 1980s, she found a place called The Wellness Community in California. She would go there and do meditation, yoga, support groups – all with other people living with cancer. It was an idea ahead of its time.  In her book, “It’s Always Something,”  (which chronicles her cancer journey), Gilda says that she wishes that everyone touched by cancer could have a place like The Wellness Community to go to.  A place where they are part of a community of support and love and non-judgment.  She felt this ‘community’ was the most helpful part of her cancer journey.  Flash forward almost 30 years later, this is the foundation of Gilda’s Club today.  While all Gilda’s Clubs have a ‘place’ and a building, it’s the community inside of the building that is unique and makes it a ‘club.’  When someone is touched by cancer they are likely getting great physical care. We have amazing medical care in the Twin Cities.  However, the medical doctors’ first priority is to take care of the disease and the body.  Cancer affects more than just the body…if affects the soul, mind, spirit, and that of friends and family too.  At Gilda’s Club the ‘community’ is the expert on how to care for someone touched by cancer.  There is not a doctor or a social worker telling you how to feel or what to do, rather it’s the collective community of other families who are also struggling with cancer sharing their expertise.  The community aspect of Gilda’s Club IS Gilda’s Club…it’s the secret sauce.


    What’s your vision for GC in the coming years…. oh, and how can we (and others) help?!  


    Our first vision is to open our doors. In a very cool spiritual or symbiotic way, Gilda’s Club will offer a sense of community when open, AND it’s been created BY the community. That means every dollar and every hammer has been carried forward by someone in the community. It’s been a grass roots effort from the start.  We are so close to opening, having raised about $3.3 million so far, towards our goal of $3.8 million. Our immediate need is to raise that final $500K.  Next, we open the doors and begin offering our program of support to the community. People are waiting and we are anxious to do this later this year. In the coming years we know we’ll play a central role in the social and emotional care of families touched by cancer in the Twin Cities. This will mean lots of activity at our Clubhouse off of 394 and 169, West of Downtown, as well as outreach programs around the Twin Cities. And our far future vision is perhaps a second facility. But we need to get this first one open first.  Our biggest need immediately is raising our final dollars, and finishing the furnishing of our Clubhouse.  The best way to keep up to date about specific volunteer or donation needs is to join our mailing list or like us on Facebook.  www.GildasClubTwinCities.org    https://www.facebook.com/GildasClubTwinCities

    Laughter – so I know that laughter is a huge part of your life  if you could sum up the importances of laughter, smiles and such (on health) what would you say.  

    Heck, your the expert… and one damn funny lady. It’s funny (or ironic) how the seemingly divergent parts of my life really do connect in a very deep way.  At first glance you might not make connections between a comedy theatre owner and improvisation teacher and emotion and social cancer support.  And yet they are so perfectly connected.  In fact, Gilda Radner made those connections herself. . . nearly 30 years ago when those connections were infantile.  She was the one who talked about ‘living’ with cancer, vs. dying from cancer. . .and the ability to choose to laugh, enjoy your life, no matter the outcome, was the discovery she made that really gave her peace when she was dying.  Specifically and medically, it’s been proven that laughter, joy, attitude can impact physical outcomes when someone is living with cancer.  I think I knew this instinctively when my sister was going through cancer.  We would watch Gilda Radner and Saturday Night Live videos during her chemo, believing somehow we could impact the outcome.  Now we know some of this is valid.  Anecdotally, through teaching hundreds and thousands of people to improvise, I know that levity, laughter, play and comedy have a huge healing and transformational effect on people’s lives. One of the things I am most excited about with the opening of Gilda’s Club Twin Cities is that we’ll offer improvisation classes for folks touched by cancer. Not only will it have a real impact, but what a cool honoring of Gilda herself, who was (and still is) considered one of the pioneers of improvisation.  

    Jenni’s hubby, John Sweeney, having some fun with none other than… BETTY WHITE.  
    Love that lady.

    Thanks Jenni, Gilda’s Club TC and The Brave New Workshop for calling us to grow beyond ourselves.

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