Gilda’s Club was heartbroken to share that one of our co-founders, Deb Bailey, died on April 27, 2020 from her most recent cancer diagnosis. Deb was an integral part of Gilda’s Club, an inspiration to so many and a supporter of the entire Grand Rapids community. It is fair to say that Deb Bailey made the Grand Rapids community even grander.
In the past week, we have had the opportunity to reflect alongside many in our community on the profound and personal difference Deb made to our organization. Deb’s passion, vision, ideas and investment of time, energy and resources directly impacted Gilda’s Club, our team, the cancer and grief members we serve and the many connected to our organization in hundreds of ways. It is impossible to list the countless ways Deb has made a difference to Gilda’s Club. So, let us try to narrow it down to three very important ones:
The Messenger (aka, self-proclaimed, “the mouth”) in helping to start Gilda’s Club
In early April, I had a Zoom call with our three co-founders, Twink Frey, Susan Smith and Deb Bailey. We discussed ideas of how to recognize the significance of Gilda’s Club entering its 20th year of operation next year, and reflected on the many years of planning, ideation and coordination it took before the doors officially opened February 15, 2001. It quite literally took our whole West Michigan community “in this together” to make Gilda’s an actuality.
Inspired by their own cancer diagnoses, the founders, along with Leann Arkema, the organization’s first hired employee and CEO, helped bring together a community of support and resources to fruition. Deb once described it to me this way, “Twink and Susan were able to bring the required resource support and organization needed. I was just the mouth that could help explain why we needed this organization in West Michigan!”
Deb was the extrovert, the engager and understood the need for Gilda’s Club in our community. Among so many accomplishments, Gilda’s Club was one that Deb was most proud of.
“It was through our work as founders of Gilda’s Club that I really got to know her and appreciate her many admirable personal qualities and substantial skill set. Deb was a great leader, always able to communicate with people with insight and wisdom while being a lot of fun. We worked hard and laughed a lot. I truly enjoyed the work we did together and appreciate her contribution to making Gilda’s Club such a special place. She leaves a memorable legacy.”
-Susan Smith, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids Co-Founder
Modeling our namesake, Gilda’s Radner
Gilda Radner once said, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing
Left to Right: Deb Bailey, Susan Smith,
Peter M. Wege and Twink Frey
what’s going to happen next.” Just like our namesake, Deb showed everyone how to LIVE with a cancer diagnosis – regardless of the outcome. In her message this past fall at a cancer fundraising event, she advised: Pay attention to how you handle your losses as they reveal much more about yourself than your successes.
Deb was diagnosed with cancer five times – a self-titled “over achiever.” Through each diagnosis she showed what it was like to take the moment and make the best of it. Deb embraced the fullness of life in a way that was courageous, full of passion and of course humor (and for those that knew Deb well…a bit of wine!). Her authentic approach greatly mirrored the words:
“While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that only tragedy is to allow part of us to die—whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.”
-Gilda Radner, SNL Comedienne and Gilda’s Club Namesake
The word “rainmaker” was recently used to describe Deb to me. And, if a rainmaker is a person whose influence can initiate progress and help ensure success – I think this is fitting. She has done this for so many organizations and individuals.
Deb led by example. At a Gilda’s Club gala, she encouraged people to reach for their checkbook and give generously because our “Free emotional health program is damn expensive”. She recently donated a new fence to “give Gilda’s Club a much-needed facelift.” This was done without fanfare and out of a desire to ensure the members and families coming to Gilda’s Club feel the intentional warm welcome and caring culture that was deliberate from inception.
“One of Deb’s greatest gifts was her humor. She was so courageous and passionate about life, the community and helping others. There was no one better to get a direct message across with a marvelous balance of comedy, forthrightness and grace. We had such fun during the early days of Gilda’s Club, Deb was an integral part of our great founding team!”
-Twink Frey, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids Co-Founder
Gilda’s Club was near and dear to her heart, as was shared in her beautifully written obituary. In it, she asked any memorial gifts be given to the charity of your choice. We would not be following Deb’s advice if we did not invite you to choose Gilda’s Club to designate your gift to. Most importantly, give of yourself in a way that is meaningful to you in a way that “improves the lives of others.”
It is hard to share Deb’s impact on our organization, mission and ability to deliver emotional health support to any and all on a cancer or grief journey in a succinct manner. Until the time when we are able to gather to honor Deb and grieve collectively, we invite those who wish to share in a moment of contemplation or simply take in the beauty of the clubhouse she helped build next to the fence she donated by sharing in our tribute to Deb.
Notes, cards and mementos that are left will be collected and shared with the family. We only ask that you please keep social distancing and mask guidelines in mind.
For more reflections from the community, Gilda’s Club members and volunteers, please take a moment and view our tribute to Deb Bailey in the video above and the many memories and tributes shared on our Facebook post below.
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